Gov. Bevin reiterates support for public charter schools in meeting with Ky. pastors' coalition

12/29/2015 10:52 PM

Gov. Matt Bevin evoked the biblical tale of Moses during a meeting called by the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition in west Louisville on Tuesday, asking for their patience as he tries to help shepherd charter school legislation through the General Assembly.

“Be patient,” Bevin said from a table at the front of Christ Temple Christian Life Center. “You have been, but think about this: Moses wandered around with the Israelites for 40 years.”

His comments resonated with the audience of about 60, some of whom have advocated for public charter schools prior to and throughout this year’s gubernatorial election as a means to improve achievement gaps among struggling Kentucky students.

Pastor Jerry Stephenson, of the pastors’ group, recalled meeting Bevin at a charter school rally before his candidacy, adding that Bevin is the first governor he could recall who made a commitment to west Louisville in the campaign and returned to the area to talk policy shortly after his election.

Stephenson called education “a civil rights issue” for the African-American community.

“We know that’s what’s going to change the future of our children,” he said, calling Bevin “a general” on the subject of public charter schools. “… We need a general who will lead the charge.”

But charter schools weren’t the only subject on Stephenson’s agenda, as he laid out school choice and improving in Kindergarten readiness as two other educational priorities. He also asked Bevin, who was accompanied Tuesday by Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner, to consider having his cabinet and transition team meet with community leaders in west Louisville.

Public charter schools have been a tough sell in the Democrat-led House of Representatives, with teachers’ unions typically supporting Democratic candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

A bill that would have allowed a pilot project for public charter schools, Senate Bill 8, didn’t muster a single Democratic vote in the GOP-led Senate as it passed 23-12 in February, eventually dying in the House Education Committee.

Bevin criticized “people for whom power trumps what’s doing right by our children,” a shot at teachers’ unions and “the bureaucracy” of school systems like Jefferson County Public Schools.

“This isn’t to call people down,” he said. “This isn’t even to call them out, although maybe there’s a little bit of the latter, but we are going to call people to account, and we are going to expect people to deliver what we say we want for young people.”

Asked about his comments on teachers’ unions after the event, Bevin told reporters that those groups “use the student as cover for things that, frankly, help them to control the situation.”

“The regulation, the bureaucracy — we are protecting administrators and teachers alike who are not helping the student,” Bevin said, “and we are, frankly, doing it at the expense of and the forward progress of the teachers and administrators who are busting their tails every day to help the students.”

A group of protesters against charter schools stood outside the church before the event. Bevin said he didn’t see those individuals, saying he “would always be able to talk to people and will continue to do so.”

Only two protesters remained after the event. One, Louisville resident Chris Harmer, said others were barred from entering the church during the meeting.

Harmer said he supports new approaches to resolve failing schools, but he calls public charter schools “suspect.”

“I’m for options, but I think we have magnet schools, and I think we have the schools of innovation that Jefferson County Public Schools got a waiver from the state for,” he said.

“I think that’s the right path, not trying to bust unions and provide entrance for all students, but then not having the support that low-income students need, and most of the studies show the biggest part of achievement gap is just the problems revolving around poverty.”

If Republicans assume control of the state House for the first time since 1921, though, Harmer said public charter schools will be “almost a certainty.” Democrats hold a slim 50-48 majority in the chamber, with two members of their caucus defecting since Bevin’s election, two Democrats accepting appointments from him, and two GOP seats becoming vacant as constitutional officers assume their new roles on Monday.

“There’s just all sorts of wiggle room in the bill that was passed last year through the Senate in terms of guaranteeing public access to the information about contracts, how they’re put together and who’s doing the academic accountability as well as the financial accountability,” Harmer said.

Although he remains bullish on the prospects for charter school legislation during his term as governor, Bevin said that may not become a reality in his first session as governor, which begins next week.

“It is possible there will not be the ability to get this through this legislative session,” Bevin said, citing the amount of attention paid to crafting a biennial spending plan in next year’s 60-day session. “That’s a very real possibility, but that is not to say that there is not discussion. In fact, we’ve had multiple discussions already. Meetings like this are purposefully had to help further that discussion.”

“The landscape is shifting,” he continued. “We’re one of only seven states in America where there’s no competition for public education dollars. That’s crazy. That has to end.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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