Yes, Kentucky Teachers Are Still A Political Force. Here’s How They Can Keep It That Way.

Any true child of the ‘90s should have gleeful memories of the sitcom Kenan and Kel. The show centered around the shenanigans of Chicago teen Kenan and his orange soda-loving friend Kel, who would often find himself getting bribed into mischief for a bottle of his favorite drink. Kel had a famous catchphrase that’s still beloved to this day:

So last week, when the Courier-Journal asked me if I still believe that Kentucky teachers are a political force, I just had to channel my inner Kel. “I do, I do, I do, I do-oooh!”

This spring, we witnessed Kentucky teachers flex their political muscles as they formed social media movements and ran for statewide office. They whittled away at controversial pension reform efforts, killed off charter school funding, and forced legislators’ hands on a budget that increased overall spending for Kentucky schools. Teacher candidates may have come up short in the midterm elections, but they’ve proven they still have skin in the game.

“There’s an old saying in politics, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease,'” University of Louisville professor Dewey Clayton said in the same interview. “And though it’s simplistic, there’s a lot of truth to that.”

Empowered by the quick halt of last month’s special session on pensions, Kentucky teachers are looking to ride the hot hand into this week’s opening of the 2019 Kentucky General Assembly. But to maintain their political clout, they’ll have to be willing to take a different approach this time around.

Call It Tough Love, But Anger Isn’t A Strategy

Over the past year, we’ve seen powerful examples of teacher voice having a direct impact on state policy, but that collective voice has had a distinct timbre: outrage.

To some extent, it’s been effective. Last spring, teacher walkouts prevented some districts from even being able to operate, forcing legislators to pay attention as teachers protested on the front lawn of the Capitol. But I’m concerned that this incessant anger is leading us to a level of discourse that’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

Right now, the politics-of-outrage approach has convinced many Kentuckians that education is “under attack” by dark and mysterious powers bent on destroying our public schools. Many recent policy changes have even been vilified as “anti-education,” even though I’ve personally thought several of those reforms were in the best interest of students.

For example, when the Kentucky Department of Education eliminated a long-held policy requiring teachers to earn a Master’s degree — a decision that’s consistent with nearly every study on school quality — critics were quick to blast the move as a ploy to “dumb down” public educators.

This is the same bombastic approach that plagues the broader political discourse of our nation. In this type of binary worldview, there is no nuance: there are only allies and enemies. It’s a toxic mentality, and it accomplishes nothing.

Kentucky teachers have surely proven that they are a political force to be reckoned with, but this momentary activism won’t translate into a sustained movement unless we all embrace a more civil discourse. Being mad is not a platform.

I’m a proud public school teacher, and I’m proud of the work that’s been done to lift Kentucky schools from the bottom of the pack to 20th in the nation. However, while I’m pleased with our progress, I’m not satisfied —  I still want more for Kentucky students. We can’t get there if we continue with the toxic discourse that is so prevalent right now. But with an open mind and a whole lot of hope, we have plenty of reasons to believe that the best days of Kentucky public education are still ahead.

Do I believe it? I do, I do, I do, I do-oooh.

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