Kentucky educators and supporters try to reclaim state

The nation’s eyes were on Kentucky in the spring when Bluegrass State teachers walked off the job because of low pay and threats to their pensions. We should all be watching again on Nov. 6, when teachers and their supporters try to take the state back from ALEC-aligned Republicans.

Over 50 active and retired teachers are seeking seats in the Kentucky House and Senate, part of what veteran Courier-Journal political reporter Tom Loftus calls “an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall.”

It’s happening across the country. HuffPost, citing National Education Association figures, reports over 500 educators are running for state legislative seats. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider highlight the phenomenon in episode 52 of their “Have You Heard” podcast.

Empty House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

But nowhere are teachers running with more enthusiasm, or is more at stake, than in Kentucky, as members of Save Our Schools Kentucky made clear last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis. Four of the activists led a panel titled “How Grassroots Can Stop the Kochs in Your State,” arguing that citizen activism can check big-spending outsiders like the Koch brothers.

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Reason for optimism at Network for Public Education conference

The movement to support public schools is big, diverse and deeply committed. That’s the obvious take-away from the fifth annual conference of the Network for Public Education, which took place last weekend in downtown Indianapolis.

The network has grown like crazy since its start a mere five years ago, boosted by the reputation of co-founder Diane Ravitch but also by a hunger among teachers, parents and activists for a way to voice their concerns about the threats facing public education. The conference drew nearly 400 people.

And they came from all over – from California, New York, Washington and Puerto Rico, and from across Indiana, where public schools have been under fierce attack from the Republican-dominated state government and bunch of generously funded advocacy groups.

The mood in Indy was optimistic and determined. Teacher walkouts last spring in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and the public support they garnered, were still on everyone’s minds. The expansion of charter schools has slowed, studies have found that vouchers don’t work and news media have caught on to how unregulated school choice promotes segregation and inequality.

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What if you shout SOS and nobody hears?

The timing of last weekend’s Save Our Schools march in Washington, D.C., turned out to be awful. The summer heat was brutal. And the media’s attention was focused almost exclusively on the debt ceiling circus.

Only a few thousand marchers turned out, and news coverage was spotty, with a speech by actor Matt Damon getting most of the attention. The Washington Post covered the event and so did Education Week, of course. The Salt Lake Tribune and Baltimore Sun wrote about local teachers who participated. The New York Times apparently let it pass without notice.

There was quite a bit of after-the-fact analysis, however. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post devoted several supportive columns to the march. Dana Goldstein, in The Nation, contrasted Damon’s speech with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent address to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. (Near the bottom she links to her extraordinary American Prospect article from April about a Colorado school district that’s using tests to evaluate even gym and art teachers. Read this for a scary look at the future of education reform).

Some SOS supporters were tweeting insults at Kevin Carey’s analysis on the Education Sector website. The heat may have made him a little crankier than usual, but Carey makes good points. March participants risk putting themselves on the margins when they demonize Arne Duncan and Bill Gates and ignore public support for testing and charter schools.

But the U.S. Department of Education appeared equally clueless when it posted a response to the march from a teacher who’s working temporarily at the department. The post reads like a big, sloppy kiss for Duncan – producing a flood of online comments from infuriated teachers and SOS supporters.

So what happens next? According to Education Week, the SOS organizers plan to keep the movement going, and that’s a good thing. This was, after all, a true grass-roots event with a clear set of guiding principles. It was put together on the fly by relatively unknown teachers, activists and bloggers who are passionate supporters of public schools and teachers. Their voices should be heard – somehow.