Charter Schools Dark Money Democracy Louisville

Louisville: Will Dark Money Suppress Democracy in the Fight Over a State Takeover?

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Jeff Bryant has written a thorough investigative report of the attack on the public schools of Jefferson County (Louisville) in Kentucky. The report was funded partially by the Network for Public Education.

Louisville has one of the best integrated school districts in the nation. Its NAEP scores are better than those of other urban districts.

The only “crisis” in Louisville is caused by the election of Matt Bevin, a rabid Tea Party Governor who wants to seize control of the Louisville public schools and introduce charters.

A transplant from Connecticut, Bevin swept into the governor’s job despite the fact he had never held political office anywhere, running on a Tea Party inspired campaign was mostly self-funded with earnings from hedge funds he operates.

Bevin has taken unprecedented actions to remake the Kentucky Board of Education, stocking it with critics of public schools and Jefferson County Public Schools in particular. One Bevin appointee, Gary Houchens, an associate professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, is listed as a “policy scholar” for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a rightwing think tank. Another pick, Kathy Gornik, has served as board chair for the organization.

The Bluegrass Institute was founded with money from two libertarian networks, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network, and has benefited from a pipeline of dark money.

One of Bluegrass’s top issues is “education reform,” which it defines as “charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers”—all forms of “school choice” that divert taxpayer money from public schools to private entrepreneurs. The Bluegrass Institute’s staff education analyst, Richard G. Innes, has been attacking Jefferson County Public Schools for years. After the announcement of recommended takeover, he penned an op-ed endorsing it.

Fortunately, parents are organized and fighting back.

The parent leader is a public school parent, Gay Adelmann:

“Jefferson County Public Schools is a district of choice, [and] parents can look for schools and not houses,” says Gay Adelman, a white Jefferson County Public Schools parent with a student who attends The Academy at Shawnee, a magnet middle school and high school in the West End with a focus on aerospace. Shawnee has a student population that is 59 percent non-white and 79 percent on free and reduced price lunch, a typical measurement of poverty.

Adelman helped form the grassroots group Dear Jefferson County Public Schools that pushed to elect the current school board. She recently ran for State Senate in the Democratic party primary, campaigning on a platform supporting Jefferson County Public Schools and opposing state takeover. She lost but managed to garner 44 percent of the vote as a first-time candidate with little funding.

Bevin fired the state commissioner and hired one of his own choosing, Wayne Lewis, a charter zealot who is determined to grab control of the Louisville district.

But Bevin and Lewis face a community that supports its public schools. The recent school board elections saw public school supporters beat the Dark-Money candidates:

In the 2016 school board election, Kolb, a first-time candidate for the board, won an improbable upset victory against well-financed incumbent board chairman, David Jones Jr., the son of the co-founder of health insurance giant Humana. Kolb estimates he was outspent by up to fifteen-to-one, but he won because he and his volunteers knocked on over 13,000 doors.

Running as a one-term incumbent, current JCPS school board member Chris Brady was also targeted by big money for defeat, with over $350,000 from a local Super PAC that backed his opponent. He won anyway, he tells me, by “running on my record” of supporting the district and new leadership he helped put into place.

Jeff Bryant casts the battle for control of the public schools of Louisville as a battle for democracy:

But if the takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools is all about politics, it’s not a contest between “red vs. blue,” but whether democracy matters at all.

The pro-public schools coalition is planning a big rally on October 18 in the afternoon. I will be there and so will my friend and civil rights leader Jitu Brown of the Journey for Justice. We will be there to support the students and parents of Jefferson County.

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