Johnnie Turner knows education; just read what he had to say

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Guest Author

Jordan Pack, a teacher at May Valley Elementary in Floyd County, shared a thread on Twitter about his visit with state Senator Johnnie Turner. We asked him if we could share the thread, and he agreed. Here is that thread, just as it was posted.


We arrived at Senator Turner’s office without an appointment (I had attempted to make one about a week in advance). We were lucky, because he had cancelled his appointments for the day due to a non-COVID cold, and he was feeling well enough to meet with us.

When we sat down in his office, he asked what our concerns were. My colleague and I both voiced concerns about what appear to be ongoing attacks on KY's public ed system from the @KYGOP. As a third-gen public educator, I noted that conservative policies have made the professional lives of public school employees across the board far more difficult – seemingly with each passing year.

After about a minute of hearing us out, the senator began a 20-minute long biographical account of his experience in education with a rather inflammatory proclamation, “Here's what you young people don’t understand about education.”

The senator spoke about how his majority-Cherokee grandmother (I am still unsure why he added and emphasized a racial/ethnic qualifier) had been alive in the late 1800s, and he spoke with her frequently, so he really had over a century of perspective on this issue.

He talked of his experience in quasi-private institutions like Red Bird School and quasi-public ones like the remaining Appalachian settlement schools. He has also worked as a school attorney in southeastern KY.

Turner described KY’s public education system as “failing,” largely due to teachers who “only see it as a job and nothing more.” According to him, this apparently includes virtually all “new” teachers, because “it wasn’t like that in the 70s.”

I didn’t get a chance to tell him that the only educators I know that treat their jobs as “just a job” are more experienced (15+) teachers who have over time been burnt out by increasingly-disastrous legislative policies like the ones our legislative majority are pushing through.

The solution to this failing system, Turner says, is competition. He claims to have data to prove that religious schools in his home county of Harlan produce more successful students than comparative public schools.

Public dollars like SEEK funding should be allocated to private, charter, and quasi-public schools in a proportionate amount to what is allocated already to public schools, says Turner. All taxpayers, he says, deserve the choice to send their children to the best school around.

This line of capitalistic thought, for what it’s worth, is destroying public ed nationwide. The senator said in no uncertain terms that past plans have failed and that it’s time to “experiment” with our schools. Public ed, he says, is a business, and should be run like one.

It shouldn’t. There are lots of things that should never be capitalized on, and the public school system is one. Disadvantaged students from urban schools in Louisville to distant Appalachian mountain schools would, of course, face detrimental effects.

“How will we determine which students are more successful,” I asked the senator. Public school students are assessed on state standards, and other students aren’t. If our measure of achievement isn't the same, there's no way to compare success.

“If we aren’t assessing students congruently how will you decide which students are achieving at a high level and which schools are failing?” Around this time, Phillip Wheeler conveniently entered the room. It was time for their lunch. The senator stood to leave.

But not before telling me — literally — that the state standards, approved by his party, are dumb, pointless, and useless, and that we would know which students were more successful because “they will have more in their brains.” This was never elaborated on.

During this meeting, my colleague and I were told by the senator that he was more knowledgeable about education than perhaps anyone else in the Capitol. I left, let’s say, less than convinced.

Please help us fight for public education in Kentucky.

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