Subverting democracy: Four views on 
the state’s war on schools

You could hear the hooves thundering and trumpets blaring months before Gov. Matt Bevin and his pro-charter school, anti-public education calvary came charging into Louisville, with his remarks that our schools are an “unmitigated disaster” and his attacks on teachers as a group and even individually. By the time you read this, the Jefferson County Public Schools board likely will have voted on whether to appeal a recommendation for the state to take over the school district. Such a takeover would strip voters of their elected school board and render the new superintendent vestigial. Bevin remade the state Board of Education, which replaced the state education commissioner with one who had already decided our schools could no longer run themselves. Here are four views on this mess, which you can navigate via the hyperlinks below:

What Kentucky’s Eduction debates are really about 

Jefferson County’s Banana Republic Schools, State Takeover Would Be a Coup d’ État

No state takeover! Let new JCPS changes work

Can’t say JCPS needs change
 and then say it’s doing great

 


What Kentucky’s Eduction debates are really about

By Ricky L. Jones

It should be made clear at the outset that this brief engagement isn’t really about education. Well, that’s not exactly true. It is about education, but not solely. Please bear with me and read on.

Anyone who has followed the current education wars in Kentucky is at least mildly familiar with the veritable stockpile of issues at hand. They include the makeup and process by which the governor can (and should) appoint or influence public university boards of trustees, the state’s education board and even the state’s education commissioner. There are also toxic debates over a proposed state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), charter schools, K-12 teachers’ pensions, college professors’ tenure, desirable college majors, what universities should teach and more.

Problematically, concerns with these disputes have been largely siloed. For example, professors worry about tenure but not teachers’ pensions and vice-versa. Parents frustrated with JCPS’s historically ineffective school board don’t care about either. Some people may support a state takeover without considering clear threats to democracy and so on. Dangerously, many citizens pay no attention at all. The circus is further complicated by the rhetoric of monied and influential interests trapped in what educational philosopher Paulo Freire called “circles of certainty.” Put simply, these people believe they know everything and, therefore, can learn nothing. As a result, they speak sacrosanctly about “what needs to happen” with education — even though they actually know very little about education. It’s a mess.

Let us go back to the beginning, for I’m sure you think I’ve lied to you. I said this really isn’t about education yet have spent every word thus far on education. Trust that I did not deceive you. This is really about the overarching philosophies of a few powerful and elected people in Kentucky and their views on how society should be constructed. Education is not the real core issue. The more cogent interrogation is how particular ideas on education bleed out of those paradigms and fit into a retrograde ideological machine. Let me try to explain by stepping away from one issue and collectively looking at them all from a higher altitude.

Even cursory historical knowledge proves Mr. Bevin has a view of education that is not new. It is a philosophy centering on trade and industrial skills popularized in 19th century America. Sitting at the heart of it is an ever-present attack (stated or not) on the liberal arts and humanities. Such thinkers see them as superfluous. Even though research proves the opposite, Mr. Bevin even argues that college is overrated. If higher education degrees are attained, they should only be in particular areas to elevate chances for life success. For example, he has argued the state really needs “more plumbers and electricians.” By extension, not more historians, philosophers, artists, political scientists or intellectuals. It is a strange approach, indeed, for a man whose college major was East Asian Studies… and became a governor.

Now, let us connect a few dots. Overall, education from kindergarten through college is devalued in Kentucky. It has been for some time. The state ranks 45th in the nation in high school diploma production and 47th in percentage of citizens with college degrees. This explains why politicians are quite comfortable with choosing the economic expediency of cutting costs by eviscerating K-12 teachers’ pensions. It also elucidates why the state (under both Democrat and Republican leadership) has stripped over $200 million out of higher education over the last decade. It is simply a matter of priorities. Kentucky seems content with being poorly educated. It goes farther.

Mr. Bevin likes charter schools (though research shows they can be problematic), so he chooses state board of education members and an education commissioner who share that view. He does not care for certain higher education endeavors, so he chooses university trustees who have the same myopic, conservative views. The state’s Council on Post-Secondary Education (CPE) has morphed into a political tool that suddenly uses formerly innocuous program reviews to punish and attempt to close down higher education departments and majors it does not like. Simultaneously, Kentucky House Bill 200 is passed with an embedded measure that allows for the termination of tenured college professors with 10-day’s notice if they belong to programs that are discontinued.

If successful, Mr. Bevin and his friends will turn a large swath of Kentucky’s institutions into glorified trade schools. Meanwhile, the privileged will continue to export their children to more elite educational spaces, ironically, to obtain broad liberal arts foundations that enable them to think, analyze and excel. In the end, some students will continue to be trained to lead, others to serve. It is a reification of an intellectual and professional caste system with disturbing class and racial implications. All claims are fair in this madness, no matter how deceptive. Shamefully, both sides even argue they are trying to do what is best for black children suffering from the ills of a long-standing achievement gap which, sadly, we know is not true.

Clearly, Governor Bevin is a prisoner in his own Freirean “circle of certainty.” His certitude prevents him from listening, changing, or growing. People like him always eventually bend more toward autocracy than democracy. To be fair, Mr. Bevin is an easy scapegoat in this drama. Kentuckians must take responsibility as well. People vote for politicians based on whether or not they share their philosophical tendencies. The politicians then surround themselves with like-minded acolytes who push policy through. We must accept that Bevin is Kentucky and Kentucky is Bevin, just as Trump is America and America is Trump.

It has been repeatedly asked over the years, what does Kentucky want to be — a state willing to move into the 21st century or one mired in, at best, mid-20th (maybe 19th) century sensibilities? This may be a silly query that has already been answered. Maybe Kentucky has already decided and the archaic approach to education of Mr. Bevin and his supporters is proof.

So, you see — this isn’t really just about education. It’s about so much more.

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at UofL. He is the host of “The Ricky Jones Show with 12 Mr. FTC” on The Real 93.1 FM and iHeart Radio. Visit him at rickyljones.com.


Jefferson County’s Banana Republic Schools, State Takeover Would Be a Coup d’ État

By Chris Kolb

A state takeover of JCPS would give interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis and the 11 people Gov. Bevin appointed to the Kentucky Board of Education, or KBE, complete and unchecked authority to totally reconfigure our local public schools. If the state takes over, there is no guarantee our children would be allowed to attend their current schools in the fall. In fact, there is no guarantee that any school would still exist in the fall. These 12 unelected people  — only two of whom have any real experience in education — would be accountable to no one but Gov. Matt Bevin. Local voters, taxpayers and JCPS parents, including me, would have no say in the decisions that determine our children’s education.

As if to underscore this point, KBE members recently removed their personal contact information from their website. Apparently, the public has been vocal in its displeasure with a possible takeover, which seems as much a fait accompli as an election in the old Soviet Union. (By the way, my personal cell number is 502 403-7213, and I personally check the email chris@kolbforschoolboard.com every day.)

In short, a state takeover of JCPS would be a full-on coup d’état; an unprecedented power grab reminiscent of a third-world, banana republic that threatens the foundation of democracy itself. Your seven democratically-elected JCPS board members would be stripped of all powers the voters have given us. Your property taxes? Imposed by the state. Levy a new tax on you? Up to the state. Push out Dr. Marty Pollio as superintendent and install a lackey who could make every school a charter? Up to folks like Hal Heiner and Ben Cundiff who have been aroused by charter fantasies for years. You may remember Cundiff as the businessman from Cadiz, Kentucky, who recently opined that teachers, “murdered the underserved kids of Louisville,” a sentiment with which interim Commissioner Lewis agreed. (Of note, Cadiz is 207 miles from Louisville and has a population of 2,558. For comparison, 2,096 students currently attend Eastern High School.)

Many of the problems identified in the audit of JCPS are real, and they are totally unacceptable. These problems are why I decided to run for school board against an independently-wealthy incumbent with instant name recognition. Despite being outspent 10 to one, I won the election by five points, largely because my opponent refused to hold former Superintendent Donna Hargens accountable for much of anything. This includes widespread abuse and neglect in early childhood programs, failing to report accurate data, and refusing to fully implement corrective action plans imposed by the state.

Instead of holding Dr. Hargens accountable, my opponent, incumbent David Jones Jr. rammed through a four-year contract extension for Hargens in 2015 over the strenuous objections of three current JCPS board members, ensuring that problems identified in the audit would fester. That’s why the first thing I and my colleague Ben Gies did upon being elected in 2016 was make it clear we intended to toss Hargens out no matter what it took.

JCPS board members are elected citizens who set clear and high expectations, create conditions for success, hold the superintendent accountable and create the public will to succeed. Specific plans are up to the superintendent, so in many ways the most vital function of the JCPS board is selecting the best possible leader. According to Gov. Bevin, interim Commissioner Lewis, every state legislator, SCALA and members of KBE, my colleagues and I succeeded wildly in hiring Dr. Marty Pollio.

In extremely short order, Dr. Pollio has completely reorganized central office to better support students and recruited some genuine national superstars to JCPS. We are in the process of implementing the Academies of Louisville where students will get real-world work experience before graduating. Moreover, Dr. Pollio and his team are rolling out a “backpack of skills” initiative where students must demonstrate their learning before transitioning to middle school, high school and college or career.

In addition, JCPS recently became one of the first school systems in the nation to adopt a Racial Equity Policy. In doing so, we worked closely with a wide array of community groups to set high expectations for improving outcomes for all students and we put mechanisms in place for real community accountability. No one told us to do this. However, this board and Dr. Pollio firmly believe that different outcomes for students based on race and income are no longer acceptable. As a result of our work together over only 11 months, the JCPS that was audited by the state simply no longer exists.

If the current status of JCPS becomes the standard for a state takeover then all 867 elected school board members in the 173 public school districts in Kentucky will have only token authority that can be usurped at any time by unelected political appointees. This will make taxation without representation a de facto practice of state government and surely lead to the wealthy using campaign contributions to effectively buy spots on KBE where they can impose their will on the rest of us. A state takeover is thus truly frightening, nothing short of an existential threat to the city of Louisville, to children and parents, and to democracy itself.

Chris Kolb represents District 2 on the JCPS Board of Education and is a professor urban anthropology at Spalding University.


No state takeover! Let new JCPS changes work

By Brent McKim

The idea is a simple one. The communities that provide resources to public schools and send their children to those schools are best equipped to decide how they are run. This model for local control was laid out by the Commonwealth because it provides the most effective path to success for students. Decisions about student assignment plans, homework, extracurricular activities and what types of magnets and after-school programs are offered should be made by people who understand the schools and students these decisions will affect. This means the parents, educators and citizens who live in the community.

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The needs of the communities served by Jefferson County Public Schools, or JCPS, are unique. And the task of creating a public education system that works for every single child — especially those who we have not successfully educated in the past — is challenging. Indeed, there is clear evidence that it takes all local stakeholders coming together to be able to truly help every student succeed. That is why our children are best served when communities take on this challenge and not the state. And so, for the sake of our students, the educators of Jefferson County stand with our community partners in the OurJCPS coalition in opposition to a state takeover of JCPS.

The Jefferson County Teachers Association, or JCTA, is the first to acknowledge that we, as a community, have fallen short of providing our black and brown students with the support that they have needed to achieve their full educational potential. JCPS has not done enough be clear about its commitment to these students and has suffered from poor management and a top-heavy organizational structure. Greatly compounding these shortcomings, the state has cut funding to critical programs, year after year. As a result, JCPS has not been able to do all that has been needed to support students living in poverty, homelessness, or children who come from immigrant families. And we have not been able to provide adequate services for students who need additional and highly specific support in their classrooms in order to thrive.

So, when members of our community, when students, or parents, or educators express their frustration and disappointment, we at JCTA want them to know that we hear those frustrations and concerns. We acknowledge and agree that not enough has been done to truly meet the needs of all our students.

However, under the leadership of our new school board and new superintendent, our community is moving forward. Over the past several months, JCPS has begun the difficult process of changing the culture of education in our school district. We are working towards creating a JCPS that will provide each and every one of our children — especially our brown, black and special needs children with the education that they deserve. The district has enacted new action plans that prioritize the closing of long-existing educational disparities in our schools and has started offering new training for JCPS staff, so everyone our children interact with at their schools will be better prepared to address their needs and unique backgrounds. JCPS is also undertaking the challenging and complicated process of reorganizing our school district, moving resources and support to the school buildings and classrooms where they are most needed and will have the greatest impact on student success. And our school board just unanimously passed our first ever racial equity policy aimed at eliminating racial disparities. This makes our commitment to educating every student clear and actionable.

The steps taken by JCPS, and the changes they are working to implement in the future, are critical to the long-term success of all our students and schools. Each of these changes has been guided by community voices in coordination with our school board and our new superintendent. That key ideal, community input in public education, will be lost in a state takeover of our school district. All of the work being done by the school board we elected, all of the changes to district policy driven by the parents, educators and community members living in Jefferson County, will be at risk if a state takeover is approved. At an extreme cost to our students, our voices will be shut out.

Nationally, state takeovers have focused on urban school districts with large populations of students of color and actually have a track record of making things worse. State takeovers have typically lead to a diversion of public funds to charter schools, restrictions on which students can and cannot attend schools, school closings that have left some students without a nearby place to go and have imposed hardships on families, student assignment changes that re-segregated students and the elimination of many magnet and after-school programs.

Under a state takeover of JCPS, there are no local seats at the table. A single, appointed administrator in Frankfort with no accountability to the families or students who live in Jefferson County would have sole decision-making authority over our children’s education. Someone who has never entered our classrooms will determine what subjects deserve new textbooks. Someone who has never been to a football game at a JCPS high school will decide what extracurricular activities are offered to our students. Someone who has never helped a JCPS club raise money to go on a school trip will be the only person who gets to decide tax rates and how our property taxes are distributed to our schools. And someone who hasn’t been here to see both our history of shortcomings, or our recent strides toward improvement, will be the only person who gets to make of all the decisions for our students.

We must do better for our children. These students are our sons and daughters, they’re our grandchildren, they’re the kid next door that helps you mow your lawn in the summer. These children are a part of our community and what they really need in order to achieve their full potential is a community that is working together to build strong public schools that will serve each and every one of them. Our schools are stronger and our students do better, when our community has a voice and a stake in outcomes. JCPS doesn’t need a state takeover, it needs parents, educators, students, advocates and community members to have a greater seat at the table, working together with greater assistance from the state. VisitOurJCPS.org to find out how you can help stop the takeover. •

Brent McKim is president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.


Can’t say JCPS needs change
 and then say it’s doing great

“JCPS has great schools and we’re doing fine!”
“JCPS is doing better, and we just got a new superintendent!”
“JCPS has a diverse group of students who are in the best hands!”
Stop it! Basta!

We cannot pretend that Jefferson County Public Schools is doing great, because it is not. It’s really a slap in the face to teachers, staff, parents, community members and to the very students who have been fighting battles within the district to say that it is. The JCPS takeover has been in the making for almost a decade. I am in no way supportive of the takeover but we should be cognizant in this moment how we got here.

I don’t feel like the takeover is appropriate, but we can’t be blind to the fact that it has been coming.

Regardless what some may want to think, I’m not a devil’s advocate or stirring trouble. I’m a JCPS parent and graduate, but, most of all, I’ve been a public school advocate since I took part in the Minority Teacher Recruit Program.

Most important — I tell things like they are without all that funny stuff, fluff and lies.

Black Lives Matter Louisville’s Education Team has been organizing with the community to hold JCPS accountable for years. These coalitions reach across a grassroots spectrum. Our manifesto included various issues, such as demanding that then-Superintendent Donna Hargens resigned.

Our squad has been vigilant of the ways JCPS has handled discipline and how it handles individuals — but particularly black, brown and immigrant students.

For years, community organizations have supported families and teachers who have had to deal with the insensitive corporate nature of JCPS. Before Hargens began her tenure at JCPS, we alerted communities and JCPS that hiring someone from a similar district with the same issues was a bad move. JCPS was looking at mismanagement, from expensive salaries to ill positioned policies.

The 2011 hiring of Hargens came off the back of a series of management issues with the JCPS Board of Education and top level management: the firing of Superintendent Sheldon Berman and the ill-managed, decade plus, faulty tenure of Stephen Daeuscher’s legacy. During Daeuscher’s reign, JCPS top level admin saw increased salaries but less resources at schools with impacted population

The state takeover was never a matter of whether it would happen, but when it would happen.

For about two years, folks knew that the state had been gearing to take such action because of the poor performance of the district for the last 15 years. Our community groups produced accountability sessions with most top administrators. Yet gaps in education have increased, not only on the largest determinable funding precursor (race) but also measured by language and immigrant and economic status.

To be honest, the most disturbing thing for people about the takeover is that Gov. Matt Bevin is in office as this process is happening. The power that he acquired to perform board changes is legislative and how he did it seemed to be beyond folks control. Later on that…

What I find ridiculous is how we as affinity and community groups, who have fought year after year to hold JCPS accountable, are now singing praises of JCPS.

We cannot one day demand cultural accountability from JCPS principals and school communities and, then, the next tell everyone nothing is wrong and JCPS is doing great. Don’t forget we had to mount a campaign to force the police from our schools (#No2SROs) and to produce more therapeutic resources for school communities. But I’m not the only one confused by actions of folks wanting to be reactive to the news of the state takeover. Be sure that the powers that be, and who move when Bevin tells them, can see those actions as well.

The current political climate is stress-inducing in a time of post 9/11 breaking news and ticker tape. Ideally, folks would love to enjoy life without having to check folks in political offices so that they don’t fuck up our daily lives.

Yaw: This is our reality now.

We have allowed businessmen to enter our governance sphere and sell us positions that compromise the very nature of our democracy. The structure of this Republic or Commonwealth was lost long ago. We must be proactive.

If you are concerned about the way you or others learn about our civic duty, build it.

Stay on that.

If you’re concerned about who, what, when, how our public dollars are spent, build on that.

Stay on that.

If you want to effect change in the way, decisions are made at a district level: Run for JCPS school board. Four positions are up this year: District 1, 3, 5 and 6.

Learn more at jefferson.kyschools.us/about/leadership/board-education

Chanelle Helm is cofounder and core organizer of Black Lives Matter Louisville.

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