Tom Eblen

Let’s hang this motto in classrooms: ‘God save Kentucky’s schools from politics.’

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

It is telling that the first action taken by Gov. Matt Bevin’s reorganized Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board was to lower standards.

The board — one of 11 education boards and councils Bevin reorganized in July in one of his frequent uses of sweeping executive power — voted Monday to remove the decades-old rule that Kentucky public school teachers must earn a master’s degree.

Wayne Lewis, a charter school advocate who was appointed Education commissioner after Bevin consolidated his power on the Kentucky Board of Education, defended the move by the formerly independent board he now controls.

Lewis said teachers should be able to choose whether to pursue a master’s degree and get the pay raise that comes with it. He said research doesn’t prove that teachers with advanced degrees improve educational outcomes, and this will give school districts more “flexibility.”

It was the latest salvo in Bevin’s war on public education. The result will be a state teacher workforce that is less educated, less professionally ambitious — and less expensive for school systems.

Lewis is correct that research generally hasn’t shown that teachers with master’s degrees are more effective at raising students’ test scores. Only three other states now require teachers to have a master’s degree: New York, Connecticut and Maryland. But how will having less-educated teachers improve Kentucky’s schools?

Research also is mixed on the effectiveness of charter schools, but that hasn’t slowed the Bevin administration’s all-out push to create them. Many conservatives see charter schools as a panacea to improving public education, but their belief is more grounded in anti-government ideology than evidence.

Critics point out that one thing charter schools have done in some states is funnel tax dollars into corporate pockets. Does Bevin have financial ties to charter school interests? Nobody knows, because he is the first Kentucky governor in two decades to refuse to make his tax returns public so voters know what his conflicts of interest may be.

One thing is for sure: Bevin never passes up an opportunity to insult and belittle Kentucky’s public school teachers.

The lowering of teacher standards follows Bevin’s effort to take over the Jefferson County Public Schools, citing poor student performance. The move, which the Louisville district is fighting, is widely seen as a way to create charter schools, roll back the district’s commitment to racial desegregation and weaken the state’s largest local teacher’s union.

Bevin’s budget this year cut deeply into public education, but his own party’s legislative leaders restored many of the cuts to school transportation, family resource centers, literacy development and the Safe Schools program. Still, the final budget included no state funding for textbooks, the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund and several teacher training programs.

Bevin brags about fully funding teacher pensions. But he and Republican lawmakers pushed through pension changes and benefit cuts with a process so shady that a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled it unconstitutional. Bevin has appealed the ruling to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

If upheld, the Kentucky Education Association says the pension changes and benefit cuts will not only hurt current and retired teachers but dissuade bright young people from choosing public school teaching careers, which probably suits Bevin just fine.

Based on his words, actions and policies, Bevin cares a lot more about “workforce development” than education. He seems more interested in training docile workers for corporate factories than educating engaged citizens of a democracy to become Kentucky’s social and economic innovators of the future.

Public schools have problems, as any over-worked, under-paid teacher can tell you. Politicians feel entitled to micromanage public schools, but they won’t properly fund them or trust educators to do their jobs. Because of that, there’s a lot of “accountability” testing and test prep, which takes away valuable time from learning and enrichment activities.

Public schools also directly reflect social conditions. Too many Kentucky students are poor, come from chaotic family situations or don’t get adequate health and dental care — all of which affect their ability to learn, no matter what their teachers do.

In other news this week, Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville, submitted a bill for next year’s General Assembly that would require public elementary and secondary schools to post the circa 1956 national motto “In God We Trust” in a prominent location. This bill is just what Kentucky public schools don’t need: Another unfunded mandate, another constitutionally questionable mixing of church and state, another distraction so some politicians can score points with their political base.

If schools want to post a motto, I would suggest this: “God save Kentucky’s public schools from politics.”

Thousands of Kentucky teachers stormed the state Capitol April 2 to protest pension benefit cuts, oppose charter schools and advocate for better education funding.