A woman streams Diane Ravitch’s speech on Facebook Live during a Save Our Schools rally. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

The former assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch, doesn’t like traveling, Gay Adelmann, a local education advocate, learned while trying to persuade Ravitch to speak in Louisville.

This time, she got lucky: The organization Ravitch co-founded, the Network for Public Education, is hosting its conference in Indianapolis this weekend. And as long as someone promised to drive Ravitch from Louisville to the conference, “she was more than gracious enough to add this to her busy schedule,” Adelmann said.

Local organizations that support public education teamed up to invite Ravitch and other speakers to Central High School Thursday night to push against what they deem to be threats to public education, including charter schools.

“Diane is arguably the foremost national expert on what’s really driving the push to privatize our public schools,” Adelmann, the event organizer, said.

Ravitch studied the underlying problems impacting public schools and wrote “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” which won the Grawemeyer Education Award in 2014.

The event came after Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, dodged a state takeover. Many of the hosting groups, including Save Our Schools Kentucky and the Jefferson County Teachers Association, fought against the proposed takeover in favor of maintaining local control.

In brief opening remarks, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio acknowledged this, thanking the crowd for supporting the district in a “challenging” year.

After Pollio, speakers became more pointed, often turning to push against charter schools and tax credit vouchers. JCTA President Brent McKim equated both to snake oil.

Jitu Brown, national director of Journey For Justice, and Sue Legg, formerly of the Florida League of Women Voters, both spoke of their work fighting against charters and for public schools.

“School choice is a hustle,” Brown said. While charter schools are “spreading all over the place, they’re also losing all over the place.”

A recent informal poll from Insider Louisville of 36 readers, found that over three-fourths are against charter schools, which receive public funding but operate independently. Around 15 percent are for them, with some saying they’re indifferent toward the school type.

Kentucky legislature approved HB 520 in 2017, allowing charter schools to operate in the state. However, no long-term funding made it into the final budget this year, meaning charters have no viable state funding and no way to present a reliable budget to an authorizer.

Without funding, no one applied to run a charter school in JCPS during the first ever application period this spring. Two groups filed notices of intent to apply, but both were late and didn’t result in a full application.

Charters are unlikely in Kentucky until a funding mechanism makes its way into the state budget, charter advocates said, but the fight against them continues. Months from the beginning of the 2019 legislature, Rep. Attica Scott pre-filed a motion to repeal the charter law.

In April, Gov. Matt Bevin appointed six people to the Kentucky Board of Education, which promptly replaced the commissioner of education with Wayne Lewis, a known charter school advocate. Lewis, along with KBE members Hal Heiner, Milton Seymore and Gary Houchens, advocated for charter schools in Kentucky and ran multiple pro-charter groups in the past.

Between the board change-up, Lewis’ now-permanent hiring and the avoided takeover of JCPS, the fight against charters has amplified. Nearly every major educational change, including new graduation requirements and accountability standards begun under the former commissioner, have been met with criticism that the changes are moves to ease in charters.

Lewis addressed the criticisms multiple times over the past month, calling the assertion that recent accountability changes were a way to bring in charters “ridiculous.” Critics thought he “manufactured” a system to make schools look bad, Lewis told KBE at the beginning of October.

“I am not that powerful,” he said.

Speakers encouraged attendees, many of whom were sympathetic to the cause, to educate their peers on issues facing public education and look for candidates who will fully fund public schools if elected.

“As we head into the midterm elections,” Adelmann said, “We have a real opportunity to identify legislators who have been operatives for this outsiders’ agenda, and remove them from office before they do any more damage.”