Lewis: Suspended students in basement at JCPS school 'sickening'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis says he has received an “overwhelmingly” positive response to his call for more civility in policy debates after receiving a pair of insulting emails from teachers this month.

The two teachers in question took issue with Lewis’s policy positions, with one Jefferson County Public Schools educator referencing slavery in his criticism of the commissioner’s support for charter schools in Kentucky. Both emailed Lewis from their school accounts.

Lewis, who asked teachers across the state to have more respectful conversations on policy points in an email Friday, said some educators told him they saw nothing wrong in emails from Kumar Rashad, a high school math teacher in JCPS, and Kira Hesse, an elementary school reading teacher in Meade County Schools.

“That’s unfortunate,” Lewis said in a phone interview with WDRB News. “I think it’s really clear that there are some things that we ought not say to each other.”

Hesse, who told Lewis and his “butt buddies” to “go ruin another state” in her Nov. 9 email, was terminated after Lewis forwarded the email to Meade County Schools Superintendent John Millay, but she is appealing that decision, her attorney, Shelly Henry, told WDRB News.

Rashad’s Nov. 15 email, in which he says charter schools devastate minority communities and refers to Lewis as “massa,” is currently under review, JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy said.

The offending emails come after Lewis said funding charter schools would be among his legislative priorities when lawmakers return to Frankfort in January.

A serious push for charter school funding could prompt teachers to demonstrate at in Frankfort again, Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said. This year, pension reform and budget cuts to many education programs sparked protests that drew thousands of red-clad educators to the steps of the Capitol.

Groups like JCTA and the Kentucky Education Association have been outspoken critics of public charter schools in Kentucky, saying the schools would siphon funding from traditional public schools.

“There are ways to be passionate and outspoken that are still civil,” McKim said. “I think it’s respectful to say this is a really bad idea. It’ll hurt kids, particularly low-income kids and kids of color.”

KEA declined an interview request Tuesday, referring WDRB News to a statement posted to its Facebook page about Lewis’s call for greater civility.

“KEA states unequivocally that we do not condone personal attacks on anyone, including those with whom we disagree,” KEA wrote in the Facebook post. “Although all educators - not just our members - have repeatedly been publicly insulted and their legitimate points of view marginalized over the last two years, we have consistently condemned that behavior and refused to respond in kind.

Another group, Save Our Schools Kentucky, has posted excerpts from Lewis’s 2009 dissertation at North Carolina State University, in which he looked at the history of North Carolina’s law legalizing charter schools.

Some of the tweets from Save Our Schools Kentucky quote writings in the dissertation that say advocates could sell charters “as the policy answer to the achievement gap” to foster relationships with minority communities and cite “a proliferation of research showing no significant advantages of children attending charter schools.”

Gay Adelmann, co-founder of Save Our Schools Kentucky, said she felt the public “should be aware of what the true strategy is behind this push to privatize public education.”

“It shows that he is a gifted strategist when it comes to understanding how to sell – he uses the word sell in one of his quotes – charter schools to a community, and that’s exactly why they hired him,” she said.

Save Our Schools has begun publishing anonymous letters from educators to Lewis under the banner Dear Wayne, similar to Adelmann’s Dear JCPS website.

Lewis, however, disputed Adelmann’s interpretation of his dissertation.

He said he approached the subject from the perspective of a researcher rather than an advocate. In fact, Lewis said he had no position on charter schools at the time.

He had not seen any of Save Our Schools Kentucky’s tweets on his work, but he said he had heard one excerpt dealt with the research on charter schools.

His characterization of research on the subject was accurate in 2008, when he wrote the dissertation, but he said much has changed in the past decade.

Academic results for students in charter schools and traditional schools “are pretty comparable” generally, Lewis said.

But low-income minority students have shown significant improvements in charter settings, he said.

“Where you tend see the significant difference … is with low-income kids of color,” Lewis said.

“The research has shown public charter schools tend to have to most gains with the very populations of kids that we tend to struggle with the most,” he added.

Whether the General Assembly will take up charter school funding in the upcoming session remains to be seen.

Lewis said he’s unsure how a funding bill would fare in the upcoming session, and he contends that such legislation would not need to be passed with a 60 percent supermajority, the amount needed to pass revenue bills in non-budget sessions, because it would not budget dollars for charters but rather allow SEEK money to follow students enrolled in charters.

For Lewis, that would be the true glimpse of whether or not the public supports charter schools: If Kentucky parents don’t want to send their kids to charter schools, they simply won’t be funded.

“We’re not asking for an appropriation,” he said. “It just shows the way dollars would flow to a public charter school if parents so choose to send their kids to a public charter school.”

McKim disagrees and says legislation setting expenditures should meet supermajority thresholds in the House and Senate.

He sees a difficult path for a charter school funding bill, particularly in the House. House Bill 520, which legalized charter schools in 2017, passed with support from 53 Republicans, four short of the 60-vote supermajority.

McKim noted that while the GOP maintained a 61-member supermajority in the lower chamber after the Nov. 6 elections, Democrats gained two seats. Some House Republicans who voted for the charter school bill lost their re-election bids, he said.

“A number of Republican legislators have said to me that the last two legislative sessions have been pretty divisive, and they feel like they’ve really passed most of their top priority legislation that they had been hoping to pass,” McKim said.

“The sentiment that’s been communicated to me has been they would like this to be a legislative session where we’re much more focused on finding common ground and maybe improving existing legislation and not trying to get into such highly divisive fights.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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