When Louisville businessman Matt Bevin ran for governor in 2015, he did so on the platform of fiscal responsibility, school choice, and conservative reform.
Armed with Tea Party rhetoric and the funding to match it, Bevin did the unthinkable by knocking off establishment candidate James Comer in the GOP primary. His margin of victory was just 83 votes.
Shortly after clinching the GOP nomination, Bevin began consolidating power. He made amends with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s top dog in the Senate, despite famously criticizing the now-Senate Majority Leader in his 2014 run for U.S. Senate. He made friends with Kentucky’s junior Senator Rand Paul, who pledged to do “everything humanly possible” to help get Bevin elected. Suddenly, Bevin had a chance.
He needed more than a chance, though. Bevin was a Tea Party darling in a purple state, and he had never won an election before. He needed something to give himself an edge － he needed a crisis.
He found one in Kentucky’s pension system, among the worst-funded in the nation. He pledged to freeze the expansion of new participants and implement a 401(k) style plan for all new hires. This, Bevin argued, would put Kentucky’s pension system back on the road to solvency. And with meaningful tax reform and cuts in spending, Kentucky could finally afford to get its education system in the 21st Century with charter schools, tax credits, and other means for providing families with choice.
Bevin, if elected, stood poised to change Kentucky education unlike any gubernatorial candidate before. He would give thousands of families a choice in their kids’ education, championing schools and workforce development programs that would lead Kentucky’s youth to decent-paying jobs and a steady foothold in the middle class. He would challenge struggling schools to get ahead. He would finally stop kicking the proverbial can down the road, reforming and funding Kentucky’s pension system once and for all.
And months later, when he finally found himself in the Governor’s Office, Bevin would fail at nearly all of his attempts for school reform.
Bevin was never a favorite of teachers unions; his inflammatory remarks about public school teachers would be played over and over like a broken record, driving a permanent wedge between his administration and the public servants he had claimed to care about. In-context or not, his comments on “greedy” and “thuggish” teachers are permanently burned in the minds of thousands of Kentuckians. And with that, Bevin single-handedly united an entire profession against his agenda.
No matter how well-intentioned Bevin’s reform ideas may have been, he proved the old adage true: “perception is reality.” Even now, months after the #RedForEd rallies and teacher walk-outs, there are still a lot of Kentucky teachers out there who think the man is waging war on public education. We saw shades of that same outrage just this week, in fact, as the EPSB overturned the Master’s degree requirement for Kentucky teachers.
That war appeared to reach its apex, of course, when the General Assembly’s last-ditch effort for pension reform managed to clear both House and Senate hurdles. Initially designated as an act regarding sewage management, that bill has since been declared unconstitutional by a Franklin County judge.
Now, another showdown looms in the Kentucky Supreme Court, where the pension buck will finally stop.
Bevin had been dealt a solid hand to help lead Kentucky, a state with virtually no school choice options, to meaningful reforms that may have been valuable for Kentucky’s students. Despite his low approval from teachers and their unions, Bevin at least had a state legislature with whom he could work to pass meaningful reforms.
Now, with his credibility irreparably damaged among the education community and his approval ratings approaching the danger zone, Bevin is leaving Kentuckians with a bad impression of school reform. He has effectively closed any avenues of communication that he may have once had with traditional ed supporters, making it harder to have real, legitimate conversations about moving Kentucky’s schools forward.
“School choice” might as well be a four-letter word right now; it’s still unclear when charter schools will officially open or how they’ll be funded, and other approaches (like scholarship tax credits) continue to draw limited discussion.
And it’s all because Bevin hasn’t even tried to clarify his positions or explain the benefits of such reforms. His only success in education has been making teachers mad.
With Kentucky teachers now drawing immediate association between school choice and “war on public education,” Bevin has halted much of the ethos that the school reform movement may have once had here in the Bluegrass. Kentucky’s teachers feel antagonized right now, and that’s the exact opposite of what school reformers should want. To make our schools better, we need open, honest conversations. I’m afraid we’re losing sight of that.
This is “war,” after all. And I don’t think Bevin’s winning.