An Educator’s War With the Education Establishment

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“Daddy, are you famous?” My daughter posed this question a few years ago. She was about 10 years old at the time and had just seen me speaking on a statewide television news program. I explained that no, I am not famous, but over the years I have established a reputation within the tiny world of Kentucky education policy and politics that might well be infamous — at least among some educators.

This is my 25th year working in education. I have been a teacher, principal, and district level administrator. My day job as a university professor involves training teachers who want to become school principals. The focus of my career has been service to public schools, teachers, and students. And yet some consider me an enemy of public education.

The reason for this caricature is simple: I’ve been a relentless advocate for school choice, curriculum reform, changes to our pension system, and other policies that challenge Kentucky’s education status quo. And that makes me an enemy – not of public schools – but of the education establishment.

I have deep admiration and respect for the vast majority of our state’s teachers. I have probably visited over 100 schools in Kentucky and other states over the years. The hard work, creativity, and deep concern for students among teachers continually awe me. I have taught in the classroom, am the brother of a public school teacher, and am the son of a retired teacher; my concern for their success and well-being is personal.

When I say I am at war with the education establishment, I’m not talking about ordinary classroom teachers or school principals. I’m talking about the cabal of teachers unions and professional associations representing administrators and school boards that constitute the most powerful lobby in our state capitol. The education establishment ferociously defends adult interests against changes that might benefit students, families, and even teachers themselves. This education establishment does not represent the voice of most teachers in Kentucky, although they try relentlessly to shape the opinions and mobilize the political influence of ordinary educators. Because I am for public schools, I must be against this establishment.

In recent years I’ve watched all or parts of the education establishment oppose charter schools, private school choice programs, pension reforms, rigorous accountability and reporting mechanisms, financial transparency, improved high school graduation requirements, and greater flexibility for teacher licensing and professional advancement. 

My own term on the Kentucky Board of Education was cut short in 2019 when Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who received over a million dollars in support from the state’s teachers unions, fired me and all other board members on his first day in office, fulfilling a frequent campaign promise. Our offense: vocally supporting educational choice.

This year, in addition to their perennial fight to stop families from exercising school choice, the establishment has opposed measures that would restrict schools from the promotion of critical race theory as fact, the inclusion in our curricula of historically important documents like the Declaration of Independence, and the transparency of instructional materials available for parents and the public.

The state’s media often carry water for the establishment, painting advocates of education reform as rubes or racists and failing to challenge the statements and behaviors of establishment leaders. Recently a Kentucky teacher union leader tried unsuccessfully to get this very publication’s Twitter account shut down and bragged about it openly, for no apparent reason other than she disliked the views expressed here. To my knowledge not one media outlet has treated this as a newsworthy event and one prominent education reporter appeared to actually defend the teacher on Twitter.

A friend and colleague from my days as a district administrator recently admonished me for never saying anything positive about teachers and public schools. My answer: I did not become a teacher to defend the infrastructure of public education. My commitment is first to students and their families, especially families that are marginalized by poverty and lack the ability to vote with their feet if they are unsatisfied with their child’s education. 

My second commitment is to teachers themselves, who are often hamstrung in their effectiveness by the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all, change-resistant structures of education. Teachers have much to gain by the flexibility and innovation they could enjoy in a rich school choice environment and with greater freedom to earn their credentials and advance their careers. 

These ordinary families and ordinary teachers don’t have a powerful, taxpayer-funded union or professional association to represent their needs in the state capitol. That’s why I dedicate my public policy efforts to them, rather than promoting or defending “public education” writ large.

I make no apologies for these commitments, even if that puts me at odds with friends and colleagues within the establishment. I’ll always try to be friendly and professional, but when the establishment seeks to undermine the interests of students, families, and even teachers, they can expect to see me on the battlefield.

Dr. Gary Houchens
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, a former teacher, principal and school district administrator, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. He has served as policy advisor for several education reform organizations and was a member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019. Follow more of his work at http://schoolleader.typepad.com