Do It Alongside of Them: Co-Creating in the Classroom and Beyond

Matthew Kaufmann

As teachers, we see how the larger world impacts our kids.  The decisions made in Washington and Frankfort trickle down from legislators to our classrooms.  The conflicts of our culture find their way into our kids’ lives and into our schools’ doors. Every kid in a desk is living within a system and a larger history that they didn’t create.  And some of these kids are marching for their lives. They’re planning a global climate strike on Friday: September 20th.  They’re chanting Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.  They’re trying to succeed in school, find a path, and often in the context of working to support their families, dealing with trauma, and some of them- walking around afraid to speak Spanish or wear their hijab in public.

In education, context matters.  

And I believe we need to help our students challenge and transform contexts that are hurtful to them.  The skills we help them develop, the knowledge we help them apply, and the communities we co-create with them have the power to change their lives and the world.

We’re called to be realistic optimists.  There’s no room for cynicism in education.  We are in the work of speaking hope in everything we do.  Every subject area allows us to empower our students’ lives in unique ways.  As an English teacher, with over a dozen ethnicities in my classroom, I ask questions, and then I have them write, write, and write.  And then we share our writing and grow our conversation, our understanding of contexts, and our empathy.

The realist in me asks the question: Where is a space you’ve been negatively labeled?

And we write and share.  

The optimist in me asks:  How can we challenge and transform those spaces?

And sometimes my students come to the conclusion they’ve inherited systems from a different time and place that are no longer appropriate.

I’ve been working with a group of students who feel they’ve inherited such a system.

One of my students wrote a letter to every state legislator in the House and Senate last year.  She shared her conflict on how she and her peers did not have a sense of their history before slavery.  She expressed the need for experts on African American history in our schools to help fill the knowledge gap that she was experiencing and healing the mental health crisis this lack of knowledge created.  She linked many “behavioral infractions” and the school to prison pipeline as direct result of being systemically denied her history. She argued, “This is a mental health issue.  This is a civil rights issue. This is a doing right by kids of color issue.”  And local legislators Attica Scott, Charles Booker, Reginald Meeks, Lisa Willner, and Morgan McGarvey listened to and responded to her. Her bill has been pre-filed, and my students are preparing to advocate for their cause in January to legislators in a committee meeting in Frankfort.  Moreover, this work has inspired a partner in Washington D.C. to fly these kids out and provide hotel rooms to allow these students to visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture and meet national leaders on human rights issues.

I’ve often reflected on what my most important job as an educator is. I know there is a difference between compulsory schooling and real education.  As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been using writing as a vehicle for personal and social transformation, striving to make everything I do meaningful and relevant to my kids’ lives. Too many of our kids feel disconnected from the allies they have in our local government.  They think their vote doesn’t matter before they even get the chance to vote. But the optimist in me teaches them they may not be able to vote, but they have a voice, and that voice matters. And we do not need to be held hostage by the status quo, the enemy of equity. The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works for whom and under what set of conditions.  The challenge is to see the system that creates the current outcomes. And if the contexts of our kids’ lives and times are damaged by these systems, then my most important job is to empower them to change those systems.

Educators, I encourage you to ask your students what issues impact them the most.  Help them see; provide them resources; build platforms for them; recruit allies for them; and help them challenge and transform the inequities and injustices that hurt them and all of us.

And maybe the most important thing, do it alongside of them.  Show them courage. 

Because There’s No One Else: Steps Toward Equality in an Era of Division

Will Tucker

Sometimes the most unexpected opportunities turn out to be the best.

When I was asked to sponsor our school’s first Black Student Union  in November 2017, my initial response was simple: “ I’m flattered, but I’m white.” 

Our student founder, Talitha, was in my Philosophy class, and had wanted to start a BSU for two years, but was hesitant to organize a formal group. Even though our school has a reputation for embracing everyone, regardless of culture, gender, sexuality, etc. there was an apparent undercurrent of racial tension that I did not readily pick up on. She said that black students at our school “were very separated, and there was no group for them to get together and talk about their experience, current events, and history.” She wanted our group to be open to students of all races, so that everyone “could gain an understanding of the black experience.” She went on to say, “With everything going on in our country, now is the time to do this. And you have to sponsor it, because you understand.” 

I had a long talk with Talitha about what it was that I understood. She told me that I listened, that I clearly cared for people who looked like her, and that I was passionate about her mission. I hummed and hawed, offering excuses,  not because I didn’t want to sponsor the group, but because I was afraid of what people would think: Here’s another white dude trying to be woke to make himself (and other white people) feel better. My fears were dispelled when Talitha looked at me and said “ Tucker, you have to do it. There’s no one else.”   

This was a year before the district adapted its Racial Equity Policy and created a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Poverty that focuses on providing all students with spaces and places to express themselves freely, while shoring up the many cultural inequities that have plagued our district for years.  This office, and its accompanying policy also came in response to the threatened state takeover of JCPS by Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who has repeatedly lambasted how the district treats and, in his opinion, fails to educate students of color. 

I do not think that our school was necessarily failing to educate students of color, but it was definitely lacking a space for them to think freely and expressively about their life experiences, one that was safe from criticism and critique. 

I knew we had to take action. Once I got the green light from the principal, I asked two other teachers to co-sponsor the group with me. Having support when you are trying something new is essential, and my colleagues offered moral support and an immediate sense of urgency for what we were about to undertake.  

The initial response at our first meeting was overwhelming. We had 75 kids of all different races show up. We had to pull extra chairs from three different classrooms. Standing at the front of my room, looking at those students laughing and talking together remains one of the most inspiring moments of my career. 

We faced our fair share of controversy in the first few months, with meeting posters being defaced, and one rumored  outlier student who asked to start a white student union in response to our BSU. While I was shocked by these events, my students were not. As people of color, they were used to this kind of attitude, and were grateful that they had the group to serve as a united front against ignorance.

Two years in, our group continues to thrive. We’ve taken field trips to the Ali Center, completed a book drive for underserved elementary school libraries, and continue to give students of all races a space to express themselves. And that has been the most inspiring part. The students select all the topics of discussion at our meetings. We’ve talked about everything from hair, to implicit bias, to racial and police profiling, and even about the upcoming elections and their impact on people of color. These conversations are unfettered and uncensored, some leading to tears, but all leading to a common ground that previously did not exist in our school. 

And isn’t that what the best teaching is all about? Building community and building relationships from the first day of school, to the last bus ride home.

And yet, there is still so much work to be done.  Even as we take small steps towards equity, so many aspects of our culture remain unequal. It is up to us to find common ground in these divisive days. In our hallways, and in our hearts.

Because there is no one else that will care for and understand our students like we do.

When did you have your first black male educator?

Don Bacon

“When did you have your first black teacher?”

For me, it was my 6th grade reading teacher.  Part of her independent reading library was her son’s old X-Men comics, a perfect hook for a budding nerd like myself. After thinking of her, I thought of all of the black teachers I had throughout my time in public school.  Each of them provided a sense of familiarity I could never quite comprehend as a kid. I counted through 9 black public school teachers before I saw a different question.

“When did you have your first black male teacher?”

My only black male teacher in public school was my 10th grade social studies teacher.  I’m not sure if he realized it, but he made me critically think in ways I had never considered.  He asked our class why a course called World Civilizations had a textbook focused so heavily on Western European history.  I’ll never forget the feeling of stunned silence in his classroom on September 11th, 2001. He told us that America would never be the same after that day. 

Have I ever said anything to my students that will stick with them for 15 years?  Moreover, did that stick with me for 15 years because the only teacher I ever had who looked like me said it?  Did those deep questions influence me to become a social studies teacher?  

I’m not sure when you had your first black teacher or if it meant anything to you when or if you did.  However, through my own personal experience and through recent research, it’s evident there is a dearth of African-American teachers and their presence in schools makes a difference.

During my first year teaching, I was outside of a colleague’s classroom talking with some other teachers.  A student passed by us and asked if we had decided to have a meeting. We realized that the six of us standing there was the whole group of black male educators in our school at that point.  We were roughly 6% of the staff at the time. In the United States, black males only make up 2% of the teaching workforce.  

In Jefferson County Public Schools, 16% of the teachers are minorities and 36% of the students are black.  Black students accounted for more than 65% of suspensions in JCPS during the 2017-2018 school year. JCPS’s Racial Equity Policy was created, in part, to address these issues.  

Research in recent years has shown:

As research continues to develop our understanding of the positive effect teachers of color bring to our schools, we have to work harder to recruit and retain teachers of color.  The local HBCU, Simmons College and JCPS have created a partnership to introduce Simmons current students and recent graduates into teaching careers.  I hope these initiatives can create a pipeline for long term black teachers within JCPS.  

As we move towards more equitable staffing of our schools, we have to ensure we retain teachers of color.  My black male teacher left our school the year after he was my teacher. I don’t know his reasons for leaving, but I do understand the continuous pressure that comes from being a black male teacher through the “invisible tax.”  As JCPS embraces racial equity, we also have to change our mindsets on what to expect from black teachers.  We cannot expect black teachers to have some inherent abilities to communicate with black students with behavior issues. 

Metro to Middlesboro: Teachers are Teachers

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

There is an innate human need to feel a sense of belonging. We want to belong to communities and groups. We crave social interaction and love to feel like a part of a team. Sometimes this can be a great thing, but it can also lead to us feeling divided. Are you Cards fan or a Cats fan? Pro-Oxford Comma or Anti-Oxford Comma? Do you cheer for the Steelers? Bengals? We make these arbitrary distinctions and cling to them for a sense of belonging when we are really more similar than we think.

There has felt like a disconnect between urban and rural teachers since teaching began. Urban districts are sprawling and vast with intricate assignment plans and transportation issues. Our rural siblings don’t have dozens of schools to keep track of or deal with the transient nature of urban populations. Our rural friends deal with issues not faced by urban educators, such as a lack of collective bargaining. These distinctions are not things that need to drive us apart. When it comes to education, we all suffer from the same crises.

Students suffer due to generational poverty and the trauma associated with it in every school district in Kentucky. In every system throughout our Commonwealth there are children suffering the effects of systemic poverty. The causes of the poverty and trauma may have different methods, but the result is always the same. The work done to defend public education in any area focuses on every child across Kentucky. At times, legislators seek to further the divide between teachers and communities by pointing to our differences. While others seek to divide us, we continue to come together to keep education equitable for every single child living in our state.

Working together, we are building a better future for our state. We know what works in education because we are the educators. We know that smaller class sizes work from Jefferson to Monroe to Calloway and Pike. We know that certified, highly qualified educators work from Fayette to Clinton to Union and Harlan. We know that educating early and often through universal Pre-K works from Franklin to Ballard to Letcher and Gallatin. We know what works and it works inside the Golden Triangle and in every other corner of the state. As educators, we know what is right for our kids and we know that we need these things to ensure hope for every Kentucky child. 

We have made so many connections from our fights in Frankfort. I’ve met so many amazing people from outside of Jefferson County. When I talk to them, they talk about the same problems my students face. One of the best experiences I’ve had is becoming more active in our union, both through JCTA and KEA. Through our union, I’ve created ties with incredible educators in every region. Meeting teachers from across the state has been invaluable as we work together to strengthen our profession for our kids. While anti-labor politicians seek to weaken us, now is the time to join together to fight. 

As educators, we already know the idea of PLC – professional learning community. These are the teachers we work and share with in our building. We know about PLN – professional learning networks. These are the teachers we reach out to and work with when we need to work outside our building. We need to take this concept and apply it to our political needs for education. We can reach out across the state to reach educators who are working for our kids every day.

Teachers are teachers no matter where we work. We all want our students to succeed and thrive. We don’t want our students to survive; we want them to live and be the amazing humans they were born to be. Educators know that our students are capable of amazing things and working together is how we can achieve that goal. Teachers are teachers, but students are our future and teachers know that more than anyone.

We Don’t Need Unregulated Schools

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

Would you want to go to a hospital without regulations? Would you trust a lawyer who hadn’t passed the bar exam? No one would trust someone to be a doctor or lawyer without a degree, so why is there such a strong push to deregulate education? That’s what charter schools actually are; they’re unregulated schools. 

In the rush to privatize and incentivize every portion of education, corporations have attempted to whittle the profession of educator down as far as possible. Public schools exist to provide every student in the country with a free, public education in the least restrictive way possible. Recently, this has come with an increasing amount of so-called accountability as students are tested dozens of times over the course of their educational careers. Education as a right is being turned into a commodity by those who see our children as little more than products.

While corporations and the legislators they work with wish to present this as choice to parents, it results in inequity that furthers educational gaps. In fact, through rigorous application processes and expulsion, unregulated charter schools are capable of choosing who walks their halls instead of making their school beneficial for every student who wishes to attend. With policies like this, charters are capable of looking “successful” on paper instead of actually making progress with students. This level of deception is used to both turn a profit by leaving the expelled seats unfilled and bolster the name of the school as being “successful.”  These models that treat students as products lead to more punitive “discipline” in the school. While school systems such as Jefferson County Public Schools rally to implement restorative justice practices that acknowledge the humanity of children, these unregulated buildings punish children harshly for minor infractions. The students in need of the most help are often ostracized from the unregulated system and left traumatized by their “educational” experience.

One key argument for these unregulated schools is that they allow for more local control by cutting through “red tape” to create an educational experience driven by parents. In the commonwealth of Kentucky, we already have School-Based Decision Making Councils (SBDMs) thanks to the implementation of Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. The creation and use of SBDMs is to allow local control of schools by parents, staff, and administrators. If the goal of charters is to imbued more local control in school, why have schools had their SBDMs removed following the audit process? Why not implement more structure and security surrounding SBDMs so that parents and communities can retain control of so-called struggling schools?

What we need to ask is why legislators, who are normally in favor of local control, are willing to give corporate institutions that remove the democratic voice of the people millions in public funding. Public schools have rigorous accountability and regulation that are meant to drive transparency and best practices. Our professional standards are implemented by administrators at the school level ensuring that students have the most equitable, quality education possible. We pass numerous assessments and certifications, as well as background checks, before setting foot into the classroom. As professionals, we are highly regulated and highly qualified for the positions we hold. 

The key to the deregulation of schooling is that these corporations aren’t concerned with children; they’re concerned with money. Since the implementation of unregulated charter schools, one billion dollars has been fraudulently spent on their wasteful implementation. Unregulated charters often have more money to spend per pupil through donations by corporations like the Walton Family Foundation that are generally against public education. If more money would improve schooling, and to be clear it would help tremendously, why don’t we apply that funding to public schools? What do these corporations have to gain by undermining public education?

We know that more funding works. We know that local control works. What we have to do is utilize the public system we have in place to ensure all students receive an equitable quality education. Education professionals should be at the forefront of creating policy because we are the ones who know our students the best. We always have our students’ interests at heart and work to defend their rights every day.

Bevin’s History of Exclusion

Dear Governor Bevin,

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

Today I approach you, not as a teacher, but as a constituent. I want to know why you have staked your governorship on an outright retreat from transparency.

On December 29, 2015, you began your reign as Governor with a meeting about education, specifically charter schools. Rather than welcoming all voices, you barred advocates for public education, including parents and teachers, from attending the meeting. 

In a move mirroring your original charter meeting, you held a meeting on April 17, 2019, this time with President Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to discuss the future of education in Kentucky. The problem was that you invited not a single public school educator. You even barred a group of teenage journalists from a Kentucky public school. Instead you included pro privatization and pro charter advocates while resolutely removing the voices of those who interact with education every day. When questioned on the exclusion of Kentucky educators, you retorted that the people present cared about children. Just one more careless jab at people you refuse to speak to.

Throughout your time as governor you have taken a radical approach to barring and silencing those who speak against you. When met with opposition on social media, you blocked thousands of accounts, barring them from interacting with you as constituents

Governor Bevin, this not how a democratic republic is meant to work. You have an obligation to serve the people of this entire commonwealth, not just the 511,374 Kentuckians who voted for you. With a voter turnout of just 30.6%, you earned a mandate of 16% of the entirety of Kentucky voters, which was just over 3.2 million during your election. For a man voted in on apathy, you have clung to the notion that you know better than the rest of us and refused to invite valuable contributions from experts and constituents. You are our governor. We have a right to talk to you and interact with you and try to help you make the best decisions for our commonwealth. It is your legal and moral duty to ensure our voices are heard. Rather than embracing your office, you have turned your back on anyone who offers words you view as criticism.

Now we find that that behavior is not limited to just your constituents with whom you disagree, but also your own Lieutenant Governor, Jenean Hampton. In a fashion reminiscent of middle school drama, Kentucky has again been dragged into the national spotlight as your party splinters over the firing of Lt. Gov. Hampton’s aide. 

For a man who has polled as the least popular sitting governor, perhaps you should try opening doors instead of closing them. It’s difficult to gain faith and trust when you continually lock us out. Being a member of public office means dealing with those who disagree with you.

In years marred by distrust, you continue to silence us and halt our participation in our own democracy. We have no trust in you or members of your party. On March 29, 2018, SB151, the so-called Sewage Bill, was passed in an unconstitutional manner. Nearly a year later, you answered a question about whether you’d call a special session with “Not a chance. Not a chance … Like Charlie Brown and the football with Lucy? I mean, seriously.” And yet here we are with a special session being promised by you. Why should we have any faith in you? You have shown us time and time again who you are: a bully who will put the wants of the few above the needs of the many; a man from outside our commonwealth who bars and lambastes Kentuckians; a person more interested in counting the times his name appears in print rather than representing us with the dignity and decorum demanded from your office.

For the rest of us in the voting public in Kentucky, four years of Governor Matt Bevin was already too many. As we move forward as a commonwealth, we need to start making decisions about what is best for us. It’s time to engage and be active. He has shown us exactly who he is the entire time. He shows no signs of changing and doesn’t desire to. It’s up to us to change.

What You Can Do to Be a Teacher Ally to LGBTQ+ Students

Sam Berlin and Tammy Berlin

Earlier this month we shared with you one educator’s story about his experience being a teacher who is out of the closet in Kentucky.  Today my kiddo and I would like to share some tips with you for making sure that your school and your classroom give LGBTQ+ students the support they need to learn, grow, and thrive.  

Why is it important to be an ally to LGBTQ+ students?  

As educators, we want the best for our students.  We spend countless hours planning engaging learning experiences, individualizing instruction, and designing interventions to make sure that every student will be successful.  But for many LGBTQ+ students, the secret sauce that helps them grow and thrive isn’t in how well the teacher plans and delivers instruction, it’s in a school environment that respects them and values their identity, and in the caring and supportive relationships they have with teachers and their peers in their school community.  According to the most recent National School Climate Survey, we as educators have plenty of opportunities to improve school climate and become more supportive of our LGBTQ+ students.   

Recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that LGBTQ+ students are more than twice as likely as their peers to experience bullying at school and online.  Bullying puts students at increased risk for mental illness, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, and decreased academic success.  Students who are bullied at school are 10% more likely to miss school because of safety concerns, and may be at increased risk of becoming enmeshed in the juvenile justice system.  

How can we make the school community a safe environment for our LGBTQ+ students?

Even though our LGBTQ+ students face a number of threats at school, we as educators have the power to make a difference for them.   Here are a few steps you can take in your classroom, your school, and your district.

Enact policies at the local level to make school a safe and respectful learning environment for all students.  

Make sure your district and school have policies for gender-neutral facilities usage and equal access to school activities and events.  The courts have upheld a student’s right to use the restroom for the gender that they identify with.  In addition, more and more schools and districts are enacting policies that allow trans students to participate on sports teams that correspond to their identified gender.  Some schools have instituted policies ensuring that students are able to participate in proms and other school functions with their same-sex partners. In order to ensure that your school and your district is fully inclusive of all students, it is important to pass policies that protect LGBTQ+ students’ rights to fully utilize the school campus and participate in school functions in a way that is inclusive to their gender identity and sexual orientation. You can find model policy language for schools and districts on the GLSEN website.

Make sure your students have access to a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club at school.  

According to the National School Climate Survey, LGBTQ+ students who have a GSA in their school report hearing fewer homophobic remarks at school, experience less harassment and assault because of their gender expression, are more likely to report harassment and assault when it occurs, are less likely to feel unsafe because of their gender expression or sexual orientation, are less likely to miss school because of safety concerns, and feel a greater sense of belonging to their school community.  

“Flag” yourself as a supportive educator.  

Students feel safer at school and are more successful overall when they have trusted adults who support them.  Identify yourself as an ally by displaying a pride flag or an ally sticker on your door, or you can signal to students in your class by sharing your pronouns with them and inviting them to share their preferred pronouns with you.  

Call your students by their correct names and pronouns.  

Speaking of pronouns, it is important to honor your students’ identities by using their correct pronouns and their correct name.  Trans students may have a name that they prefer to be called that reflects the gender that they identify with. When people call them by their “dead name” instead of their correct name, it can perpetuate trauma that they may be experiencing due to people not acknowledging them for who they are. Mistakes can happen and if you slip up, apologize to the student as soon as possible. Don’t try to excuse the mistake, just promise to be better.  

Be aware of students who are in distress.  

School can be overwhelming for students who are bullied or who are marginalized because of their gender or sexual identity.  In addition, many of these students face additional problems and trauma at home and outside of school. These students may act out or seem withdrawn or unengaged at school due to the stress that they are under.  It is important for teachers to notice these students and direct them to help when needed.

Let students see themselves in the curriculum.

It’s important for students to see themselves in the curriculum.  Integrating LGBTQ+ history, literature, and art into your curriculum boosts students self-esteem, and increases positive interactions between LGBTQ+ students and their peers.   

You can find other information and ideas to help you and your colleagues be LBGTQ+ allies at the GLSEN Safe Space Tool Kit.

What Is a PUBLIC Charter School?

Brent McKim

With the election of a Governor just around the corner, the issue of whether or not the state should allocate General Fund revenue to fund “public” charter schools is a major campaign issue.  But are charter schools actually public schools? Certainly, under our current statute adopted by Kentucky General Assembly, charter schools would be public in the sense that they would be funded by public tax dollars.  But is public funding all it should take for a school to be considered public, or should the citizens of the Commonwealth have the right to expect certain standards of public transparency, oversight, and accountability for both finances and decision-making to be met if their tax dollars are to be used to pay for these schools before the state begins to fund them?  And do all public schools share civic responsibilities to the community beyond just academic instruction? Based on the current statute and how charter schools operate in most other states, these questions lead to a number of serious concerns.

Are charter schools transparent in their use of public funds?  This is an issue in a number of states because some of the “government red tape” from which charters have been “freed” includes laws assuring financial transparency.  As a result, arrangements have emerged in which individuals who own “not-for-profit” charter schools also own for-profit school management companies and real estate companies.  The owners of these deregulated charter schools, which do not have to follow competitive bidding for goods and services as traditional public schools do, then sign no-bid contracts with the owner’s for-profit management company and lease their buildings with no-bid leases from the owner’s real estate company, and so on.  

Consider this example reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “Imagine Schools Inc., the nation’s largest charter school operator, runs six charter schools in St. Louis. Together, their performance on state standardized exams is worse than any school district in Missouri.  Nevertheless, those schools are generating millions of dollars for Imagine and a Kansas City-based real estate investment company through real estate arrangements ultimately supported with public education money. The deals are part of a strategy that has fueled Imagine’s national expansion. In most cases, Imagine sells its buildings to another company that leases them back to Imagine, with the schools themselves shouldering the rent with public funds.”

All this is perfectly legal and very profitable, but is this how we want publicly-funded schools to be able to operate?  Some states, including Kentucky, have (to varying degrees) decided the answer is no. To our Commonwealth’s credit, our statute requires that any third party entering into a contract of $10,000 or more with a charter school to comply with open records regarding the details of the expenditure and to make public financial disclosures.

Are charter schools held accountable for academic results?  In most states, charters are authorized to operate for a number of years by a public authorizing board.  In theory, this authorizing board may not renew the school’s charter if the school is not effective, but a study by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers found that few charters are actually denied renewals by these boards that are often comprised of charter operators and advocates.  And most charters that are shuttered are closed for financial or legal reasons, rather than poor performance. 

While Kentucky’s statute requires charter schools to take the same assessments as other public schools, the fine print in the law allows charter schools to evade the consequences other public schools are subject to, based on the results of these assessment.  Instead, charter schools only have to satisfy the requirements specified in their authorizing agreements. And if that starts to become difficult, the charter operator can demand that the authorizer reopen and renegotiate those requirements. If the authorizer refuses, the charter can appeal to the state and seek to have the state force the authorizer to revise the expectations for the charter at any point.

Do charter schools have reasonable public oversight? Once charter schools receive their charter to operate, in many states there is nothing akin to a publicly-elected school board from the community that provides citizen oversight and decision-making for the school.  Instead, the school answers only to its owner or operator. Parent input panels may be offered in schools, but these typically do not have decision-making authority or the ability to review financial operations.  

In Kentucky’s case, there is very little public oversight of charter schools.  SBDM laws do not apply to charters, and instead of democratically elected oversight boards, like public school boards, charter schools get to appoint their own boards and the members of those boards do not have to come from school stakeholders or even from the same community, plus teachers in the school are expressly prohibited from serving on these appointed boards.

Are the employees of “public charter schools” public employees?  The answer to this question is typically no.  Although their salaries are ultimately paid for by public tax dollars, charter school employees who work for charter operators are typically not considered public employees, which has led to significantly higher educator turnover in charter schools.  For example, the Los Angeles Times reports that teacher turnover is three times higher in charter schools than regular public schools. A study by the University of Washington found that 71% of charter school leaders plan to leave within five years. This high rate of turnover keeps labor costs low for charter operators, but does not afford students access to experienced teachers.

Kentucky’s statute is no exception; however, charter employees would have the option to participate in the same retirement and health insurance system as other public school teachers.

Do charter schools contribute to a respectful democratic society? Traditionally, most students in American communities have attended a school overseen by an elected school board that sought to find a common-ground approach to curriculum, discipline, and activities that reflected community values.  Attending these public schools helped students participate in their community’s wonderful richness of diversity in race, religion, ethnic heritage, income, and much more. This experience helped young people learn about differences, and it prepared them for life in our diverse democratic society.  

There is a growing concern that the proliferation of independent charter schools is contributing to a much more isolated and homogeneous educational experience for young people that does not prepare them for the diverse and challenging world they will experience as adults.

There is also concern that, because parents self-select the charter schools for their children, the curriculum, discipline, and activities at these schools can drift far from shared community values.  For example, consider the group of North Carolina charter schools where ProPublica reports that instead of the traditional Pledge of Allegiance, “Staff and students pledge to avoid errors that arise from ‘the comfort of popular opinion and custom,’ ‘compromise’ and ‘over-reliance on rational argument.’ Students must vow ‘to be obedient and loyal to those in authority, in my family, in my school, and in my community and country, So long as I shall live.’”

If the Jefferson County Board of Education proposed such a change, the community that is paying the taxes for the public schools would very likely object to such a use of their tax dollars.  But no one objects in North Carolina because only parents who share this ideology send their children to these charter schools.  Again, this is perfectly legal there, but does this serve the civic mission we expect from our public schools?

Kentucky’s law does little to nothing to guard against this sort of evasion of the norms that taxpayers rightfully expect the public schools they pay for with their tax dollars to follow. 

Most of the answers to these questions should raise serious concerns for Kentuckians.  The good news for charter advocates is that all of these issues could potentially be addressed through properly crafted amendments to our current charter school statute.  

Local community oversight, accountability, and adherence to shared community values could be protected by making locally-elected school boards the sole authorizers of and ultimate decision-makers for charter schools.  Employees of public charter schools could be designated by the law to be public school employees. Open meetings laws, freedom of information laws, financial disclosure laws, and other public sunshine laws could be explicitly applied without minimum thresholds to both charter schools and any third-party providers with which they contract.  

Unfortunately, the strongest advocates for charter schools often share such a deep-seated anti-government perspective that they are resistant to such public accountability and oversight provisions.  

As the debate over charter school fund in Kentucky continues, we can only hope that the discussion will go beyond just whether or not to fund them, and will include critical issues like these, to insure that if we do fund “public charter schools” they will truly be public and serve the public’s interests.

We Can’t Vouch for Tuition Tax Credits

Jason Starr Nelson

During last year’s Kentucky General Assembly, House Bill 205 sparked a good deal of controversy. This bill would give families a tax credit for private school tuition.

Proponents of this type of legislation will argue it provides more choice for families and allow lower-income children access to a private education. The idea of tax credits and vouchers, which are direct payments to private schools, are mostly championed by Republicans, but they have carried Democratic support in other states. Unfortunately, those touting tax credits and vouchers have either been conned or are blatantly lying to the public.

Vouchers are a near impossible sale in Kentucky thanks to our state Constitution, but tax credits are a real possibility. So, why not give lower-income families the chance to send their children to private schools by offering them a tax break? There are many states that can answer that question.

In other states, tax credits have funneled money to private schools through tax credits and deductions. Under tax credits, an income tax bill is directly reduced. So if you owe $4,000 in taxes and get a $500 tax credit, you pay only $3,500. Under a deduction, your taxable income is reduced.

Kentucky’s version of tax credits, HB 205, failed last session. It would have given Kentuckians and dollar-for-dollar tax break up to $1 million. Supporters like John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, and Gary, Houchens, a Western Kentucky University and a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, and also served on the board for EdChoice Kentucky, couldn’t understand the backlash the bill received.

What they couldn’t understand is why we would allow state leaders and special interest to pick our pockets. To begin, if the bill would have passed, it was estimated it would cost Kentucky roughly $50 million annually in revenue. Illinois implemented tax credits in 2000. It cost the state $65.9 million in revenue and legislators responded by cutting $64.5 from the public education budget.

In Illinois, 46 percent of tax credits went to hose making more than $80,000, and 20 percent went to those making $60,000 to $80,000. Only 3 percent of tax credits went to those living in poverty. Under Kentucky’s proposed law, tax breaks would go to those making donations to private schools, meaning low-income families who cannot make a donation would see zero benefit. Meanwhile, wealthier Kentuckians would see large tax breaks, less state revenue means cuts to the budget, and let’s face it, that means public education cuts, sending a negative ripple effect throughout the state.

In Indiana, their voucher system is said to benefit $35,000 students, who received $154 million in tax money in 2017. However, half of those children had never attended public schools.

Then there is the near unanimous research. According to researchers from the University of Virginia, among many others, low-income students don’t benefit from attending private schools. When the researchers controlled for household income of those students who had attended private school, there was no noticeable difference in performance from their public-school counterparts. The study also found this applied regardless of where the student lived – rural or urban areas.

Bottom line is, America has been conned, state-by-state, since the early 1990s, through charter-school initiatives, voucher programs, and tax credits. These programs are social-welfare for the wealthy, and the data overwhelmingly shows they harm lower-income children. Ironically, it also leaves the dwindling middle class with fewer options – an underfunded and not-so great public school or an expensive private school that breaks the bank.

During the 2020 legislative session, some version of a tax credit bill and a charter bill will come up and it’s vital the general public understand the dangers of this type of legislation. America has 30 years of evidence proving these programs are social-welfare for the wealthy and detrimental to the middle class and lower-income Americans. We can’t follow the same path of so many other states, who have started reversing these trends.

Kentucky is always last to the table, willing to accept scraps. However, this is one instance being last to the table should benefit us, because we’ve seen the poison eaten by other states. Don’t drink the Kool Aid.

We Have to Fix Poverty

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

The Atlantic published a piece from Nick Hanauer titled “Better Public Schools Won’t Fix America” this summer. The article was widely shared among educators. In it, Hanauer talks about his work to fund charter schools and other concepts that public school educators know don’t work. He comes to the conclusion that he was wrong. Throwing money into schools won’t fix education because the problem is actually poverty.

Hanauer posits that rather than poor economy being the results of poor education, it’s actually the opposite. The economy and income of families influence education. He’s absolutely right. Every teacher will tell you without a doubt that socio-economic status is the number one indicator of potential success of a child. Are there people who succeed despite economic disadvantages? Absolutely. The problem is that they are the outliers, statistically. While education is meant to be the great equalizer, poverty persists despite it because we are not working to correct the systemic causes of poverty.

The Atlantic had another article, one that might seem to be unrelated to education. The title of that article is “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years with Nearly Nothing Going Wrong.” In the 2017 article, the author explains that education is a pathway to breaking the bonds of poverty, but it requires setting up a plan beginning in early childhood. This means that the parents of the child need access and knowledge of how to navigate early education, which usually isn’t free, and then spend nearly two decades without layoffs, a broken down vehicle, death, disease, and any of the other obstacles that life will throw at them.

If we want to fix education and make it truly equitable, it’s time that we understand the fix will not happen inside the walls of a school building. Dedicating funding to public education is important and we should still strive to provide the best, most equitable education to all students. We also need more support to make sure families aren’t living below the poverty line, despite having multiple incomes. We need to fix our healthcare system so that a single illness or accident does not doom a family to decades entrenched in poverty. We need the wealthiest of our citizens and corporations to provide their fair share of taxes to support the goals we have as a state and a nation.

Ensuring access to quality education is still absolutely important. We have a moral imperative as a state and a nation to strive to improve and innovate as educators, as well as invest in education for the good of our citizens. The pursuit of equitable education for everyone is not sufficient in itself to help those most in need. Children need to be safe, fed, and to have a home. Children need to have access to healthcare. Children need to not be punished for the perceived sins of their parents. No parent chooses poverty for their children. It is a monstrous cycle that affects both rural and urban families.

We have to stop looking at education through the lens of competition. The systematic ranking of schools only exacerbates the problems created by poverty. Rankings become a self-fulfilling prophecy as schools with students who are most in need are labelled as underperforming. In reality, there are no “good” or “bad” schools. There are just schools with students who have different needs. Education is a cornerstone of our democracy. Without accessible education, it’s impossible for us to grow and keep pace with the rest of the world. We can only do that if we work together.