Over the past few months, weeks and days, Kentuckians have witnessed an unprecedented and astonishing story of the lengths our pro-charter school, pro-school choice governor and education commissioner have been willing to go in an attempt to intimidate, threaten and silence the voices of the more than 44,000 Kentucky public school teachers. Over the past few months, weeks and days, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis who was handpicked by Gov. Matt Bevin, has waged a desperate war of intimidation in an unprecedented attempt to interfere with the First Amendment rights of teachers, their rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government.
What should be difficult to comprehend for most Kentuckians are the reasons Lewis, Bevin and other school choice advocates want to redefine public education. Maybe, just maybe, those who want to redefine public education have never taken the time to understand the importance of public education in relation to the freedoms we all enjoy in this great nation. From the very earliest days of America, our founding fathers expressed their belief of the absolute importance of public education. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, one of our most famous founding fathers, “[public education] was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.”
If there was any ever any doubt that our founding fathers believed in the importance of public education, take a moment to consider the words of John Adams when he wrote:
The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.
The real question Kentuckians need to ask Bevin, Lewis and the advocates of school choice, is just exactly who will pick the winners and losers if school choice becomes a reality in Kentucky. How many of Kentucky’s more than 600,000 public school students will win the school choice lottery and actually benefit from charter schools? How many of Kentucky’s nearly 23,000 public-school students who speak 135 languages other than English will actually benefit from charter schools? How many special needs public-school students will actually benefit from charter schools?
The answer to each of those questions should be obvious, under the charter school plan advocated by Bevin, Lewis and others, is that very few of Kentucky’s more than 600,000 public school students will ever enjoy the benefit of charter schools, or for that matter, will ever cast a shadow across the threshold of these state taxpayer funded charter schools. Other than siphon off the ever-decreasing tax dollars available for public school education, very few Kentucky public-school children will ever benefit from so-called school choice.
Sadly, what has been lost in the debate over school choice, if you want to call what Bevin and Lewis have done is debate, is the real question all Kentuckians want answered, a question which haunts all of us, and that is what can and should be done to raise the educational standards of all public-school children in Kentucky.
Unfortunately, instead of a debate, Bevin and Lewis have squandered these past months and years demonizing Kentucky’s public-school teachers, a time which would have allowed all Kentuckians to join hands and seek solutions. However, instead of solutions, Gov. Bevin and Commissioner Lewis have chosen to act like schoolyard bullies, intent on imposing their view of public education on Kentuckians, with little opportunity for Kentucky’s front-line teachers to either contribute to the debate or to much-needed solutions.
So, in the end, all Kentuckians, not only public-school teachers, need ask the rhetorical question of whether they want to be subjected to the choices of a schoolyard bully, or whether Kentuckians want to continue to enjoy the freedoms inherited from our founding fathers, freedoms which have been defended throughout the history of this great nation. For most Kentuckians, the answer to that rhetorical question is simple, most Kentuckians do not want to be subjected to choices thrust upon them by a schoolyard bully, instead, most Kentuckians want to enjoy the freedoms inherited from our founding fathers with a governor who understands not only those freedoms, but with a governor who understands how to heal Kentuckians, not divide them.
So, as I often do, I would invite each of you to join me on my imaginary mountaintop, a place where the more than 44,000 Kentucky teachers, more than 600,000 public school students and more than 3.2 million voters can shout loudly to Bevin that election day will soon be here, a time when Kentuckians will be able to cast their votes for a schoolyard bully or for a governor who will reach across the aisle and work with Kentucky teachers and public-school children in an effort to find solutions for the future of Kentucky’s public-school children and Kentucky’s public schools.
In the end, on election day, all Kentuckians must decide for themselves whether Kentucky can endure another four years of a schoolyard bully, or whether it is time for a change; whether it is time for a leader who is a healer, not a divider.
Mark Wohlander, former FBI agent, federal prosecutor and an advocate for public education, practices law in Lexington, Kentucky. Other of Mark’s columns and Liberty prints are available at, fivesmoothstonesky.com