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Kentucky: Parents and Teachers Confront a Hostile GOP Legislature and State Commissioner

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Gay Adelmann, Parent Activist in Jefferson County and Leader of Save Our Schools Kentucky, writes about the hostile actions of the Kentucky Legislature: 

 

Privatization or Potential Punishment: Are Louisville Teachers Being Forced To Choose The Lesser of Two Evils?

“The beatings will continue until morale improves,” seems to be the mantra of the Kentucky GOP when it comes to public education.

In the latest attack on its teachers, Kentucky’s new pro-charter education commissioner vowed to not punish teachers “as long as there are no more work stoppages.” It’s unclear whether the final day of Kentucky’s legislative session this Thursday will be met with another teacher-led “sick out.” It would be the 7th sickout in Jefferson County in a month. Kentucky Legislature has been on recess the last 14-days, resuming on March 28 for “sine die” and to pass any final legislation.

In addition to other terrible bills that pose a potential risk, nine resolutions stand ready to be passed by the Kentucky Senate, which would confirm the governor’s newest seven appointments to the Kentucky Board of education. The two additional resolutions appear to extend the length of current appointees’ service by swapping their seats (expiring in 2020) with two who would have been appointed to the new slots, possibly a maneuver to protect key players in the event Kentucky’s unpopular governor does mitt win reelection.

The entire 14-member board is now completely made up of privatization-friendly appointees from Kentucky’s charter-pushing, ALEC-backed governor, following an earlier round of appointments two years prior. Last year, the new board ousted the Commonwealth’s highly qualified commissioner, Stephen Pruitt, the day after they were appointed, and replaced him with an 5-year teacher and charter school ideologue who immediately called for a state takeover of the state’s largest district.

Serving nearly 100,000 students, and a $1.7 billion annual budget, Jefferson County Public Schools is by far the largest school district in the state of Kentucky, and the 30th largest in the nation.

Let’s ignore the fact that few, if any, of these board members have experience as educators or parents in the public school sector. In fact, several of the members have direct ties to charter schools and have been working behind the scenes to undermine public schools and/or position themselves to potentially profit from charters, scholarship tax credits and state takeovers of schools and districts.

KBE appointments subject to confirmation include Hal Heiner, Gary Houchens, and Ben Cundiff. Their names, along with that of their chosen commissioner, Wayne Lewis, can be found on formation documents and on boards of existing charter schools dating back to 2011, long before they worked their way into positions of conflict of interest or self-dealing.

Charters, vouchers, “scholarships” and myraid other hedge-fund darling investments have been the law of the land on 43 other states, so these well-funded privatizers know how to penetrate a market. And once they’re in, they can have their way with everything else they want. We know. We’ve heard this from allies in Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, California, West Virginia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Iowa, Washington State, the list goes on and on.

These folks keep telling us, “whatever you do, don’t let them in. It’s much harder to get them out once you have them.” JCPS teachers see it, and they have been literally keeping these most dangerous bills at bay this session and last. “To again fail to (approve charter funding) is pretty shocking and something we’ve never seen in any other state,” according to Todd Ziebarth, a national charter school advocate who helped craft the 2017 law.

But this fight is far from over. So what legislation is still in play that could happen on Thursday?

House Bill 358 would give public universities the option to exit the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System (KERS). The bill passed the House where the Senate “took a problematic bill and transformed it into an outright dangerous one,” according to Louisville House Rep Lisa Willner. “The Senate version would still permit public universities to opt out of the public retirement system (KERS), and would all but require that “quasi-governmental” agencies – community mental health centers, domestic violence shelters, child advocacy organizations, rape crisis centers, and all 61 health departments statewide – exit the public retirement system altogether. The Senate version of HB 358 threatens the very existence of these lifeline organizations, and could effectively dismantle the statewide system of public protection and crisis support.” The number of Kentucky workers whose inviolable contracts would be broken would expand to nearly 9,000.

Although many legislators have assured us HB205 (Scholarship Tax Credits) and HB525 (Pension Trustee Appointments) are dead this session, it doesn’t mean they won’t continue to bring them back next year and the year after that until they pass, much like they did with charter school legislation, which finally passed in 2017. Our only saving grace has been the fact that there was so much pushback, the general assembly’s been unable to muster enough intestinal fortitude to fund them again this session. The trick is figuring out if we can really trust this latest promise, because those in the minority are usually the last to know what’s going on, and those in the supermajority have broken our trust before.

The same body that passed an unconstititional “sewer bill” on the last day of 2018 session is the same body that called a special session to try to pass it again constitutionally last winter. And now we’re simply supposed to trust them when they say these harmful education bills are dead?

But those bills aren’t the only threat in the near future. As I mentioned, charter school legislation passed in 2017, but has yet to be funded. A looming state takeover of JCPS could open the door to conversion charter schools, without waiting for any funding mechanism to pass.

Could the confirmation of the KBE appointments be checkmate for Jefferson County Public Schools? Or said another way, could a disruption in the confirmation of these appointments derail the privatizers’ agenda to implement charter schools in our most vulnerable communities? If for no other reason, concerned citizens of Jefferson County need to email, call and then head to Frankfort on Thursday to put pressure on the Kentucky Senate to not confirm Bevin’s appointments to the KBE.

Jefferson County teachers are fighting against a “solution” that has been not only proven not to work, but leads to school closures, district bankruptcies, displaced vulnerable students and increased taxes.

If I were a teacher, I would be outraged at Commissioner Lewis’ latest attempts to bully and intimidate teachers. I’d love to see teachers call his bluff and reveal their collective power over him..

But I’m not a teacher. I’m a parent, community organizer, concerned citizen and taxpayer (link:https://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/2019/03/26/jcps-parents-students-should-join-teacher-sickout-gay-adelmann/3269349002/) who recognized years ago that her son’s “failing” public school in a high-minority, high-poverty area of town was being groomed for a charter school takeover. And yet, here we are, six years and one helluva fight later, risking watching everything we’ve been warning folks about come to fruition.

The Friday following the last sickout, many parents also kept their children home to show solidarity with teachers who have been fighting for our students, and to exercise the only power they knew how. There is talk of another parent-led action during the week of abusive state testing. It’s time teachers and parents in these red states recognize the power they do hold, and to use it to stop the hostilities coming out of Frankfort.

Whether it’s parents or teachers doing the talking, it’s time to turn the conversation around and say to Lewis, the KBE and our state legislators, “There will be no more closures to our public schools, as soon as you stop the shady attempts to privatize them against the wishes of taxpayers and against the best interest of our most vulnerable students.”

Dear JCPS invites other concerned citizens to Frankfort on March 28 for a Rally in the Rotunda from 10 am – 12 pm. We will also have the table in the annex basement where concerned citizens like myself are happy to answer any other questions you may have about what’s really behind this movement and what are next steps.

Gay Adelmann is a parent of a recent JCPS graduate and co-founder of Dear JCPS and Save Our Schools Kentucky. She can be reached at [email protected].

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