Tom Eblen

Bevin’s war on public education must stop. Quit insulting teachers and listen to them.

Sensing a lull in Gov. Matt Bevin’s war on public education, my wife and I left Kentucky for a short vacation. I thought it would be safe.

As we flew out Saturday, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers were passing resolutions condemning Bevin’s latest and most outrageous insults to teachers. His comments were so appalling that I thought he might be shamed into behaving himself for a few days. I was wrong.

Bevin made things worse Sunday with a non-apology, saying he was sorry people misunderstood his comments. Then he kept talking, making it clear there was no misunderstanding.

Bevin has nothing but contempt for educators, or anyone else who disagrees with him. He has always acted as if he were elected emperor rather than governor, and he proved it again Monday.

Bevin appointed seven new Kentucky Board of Education members who the next day ousted Stephen Pruitt, the widely respected state education commissioner, and replaced him with Wayne Lewis, chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Advisory Council.

It was obviously a well-planned coup to create publicly funded charter schools and perhaps engineer a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, which happen to have the state’s most powerful teachers’ union. Bevin clearly has political aspirations beyond Kentucky, and union-busting makes him look good to the dark-money billionaires who control Republican politics.

Charter schools, like environmental protection, have become a needlessly partisan issue. In the past, both liberals and conservatives saw charter schools as experiments with potential. But do they achieve better educational outcomes than similarly-funded public schools? The evidence is inconclusive.

Republicans now see charter schools as a panacea. Democrats see them as a diversion of scarce resources from other schools and a vehicle for corporate profiteering.

When Republicans gained control of Kentucky’s General Assembly last year, they allowed the creation of charter schools. But, so far, they have provided no funding mechanism for them because they don’t want to take resources away from other, under-funded public schools.

Will this new Board of Education now decide charter schools are the solution, despite strong opposition from most professional educators? Welcome back to the bad old days of politics in Kentucky education.

One thing is sure: If Kentucky lets for-profit companies run charter schools, the potential for conflicts of interest will be huge. Bevin should finally release his tax returns to show if he has any investments in charter school companies. The governor’s continuing lack of financial transparency, in stark contrast to his predecessors, makes you wonder what he has to hide.

Bevin’s constant insults reveal a lot about his contempt for teachers. Like many arrogant business executives, he has a lot of opinions about public schools, but no real experience or expertise in education.

When schools were closed a few days so thousands of teachers could come to Frankfort to protest cuts to their pension benefits and advocate for more money for education, Bevin became unhinged. He made the ridiculous claim that “hundreds of thousands” of children were being left home alone to be sexually abused, take poison and experiment with drugs.

Bevin fretted that children might have been left home alone “because a single parent didn’t have any money to take of them. … They don’t get paid whether they go to work or not.”

Excuse me, but teachers are educators, not babysitters. If Bevin is concerned about parents in low-wage, insecure jobs, maybe he should look at Republican policies that undermine workers’ rights, suppress wages and reduce access to health insurance, child care and social services.

Bevin claimed teachers “disregarded what’s truly best for children.” Yet, he and his colleagues hardly have the best interests of children at heart when they under-fund education and make teaching a less-attractive career choice while at the same time cutting taxes for wealthy people and corporations.

Public schools are the foundation of Kentucky’s future, but they also reflect Kentucky’s present in clear and painful ways.

Many problems facing public schools today are the result of increasing wealth inequality, economic insecurity and social problems such as drug abuse and the breakdown of families that are rooted in poverty. Schools also reflect a disinvestment in education and social services by tax-averse politicians.

Charter schools won’t fix those problems. Neither will cutting benefits that attract smart, dedicated people to low-pay, high-stress teaching jobs. If Bevin would listen to public school teachers instead of insulting them, he might learn something.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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