Even in an era filled with mass protests and daily political outrage, this spring’s rolling teacher strikes are particularly noteworthy. Tax breaks for millionaires and oil companies have left many schools in various states of disrepair, and an entire generation of students have been forced to learn from emergency substitute teachers lecturing on ancient textbooks held together by duct tape.
Exhausted by a decade of cuts to education funding and energized by vast public support for their cause even in reliably red states, teachers across the country have hit the picket lines and filled up capitol buildings to demand increases to school budgets and long-overdue raises.
Striking teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have won impressive concessions from GOP-dominated legislatures, but the job is not complete. Outspoken teachers have vowed to continue fighting for their students — not only by appealing to lawmakers, but increasingly, running to displace them.
We’ve highlighted a number of those teachers here at Progressives Everywhere, and now we’re expanding the focus to include parents and school activists are running for local office. First up is Gay Adelmann, who is running to represent Kentucky’s 36th district in the state senate. Kentucky has also seen massive teacher strikes, but faces a defiant governor who just signed a bill that hurts teachers’ pensions, no doubt a provocation.
Adelmann has been involved in the battle to save the state’s public schools for several years now, her activism inspired by the cycle of neglect and abuse of her son’s Louisville high school. She is vehemently opposed to the GOP’s plan to allow privately run, publicly financed charter schools across Kentucky, because they will drain resources from already strained schools and enrich private donors, and through her founding of several parent/teacher organizations, she has lobbied hard against it for the past several years.
The candidate has come a long way in a short amount of time. Adelmann’s involvement began by starting a website for her son’s underfunded high school; now, she’s campaigning across Louisville to convince voters to stand up to millionaire donors who want to wrest control of public schools away from communities and siphon money to privately run charter schools.
How’d you decide to run for office?
My senator [Julie Raque Adams] voted for charter schools in 2017 despite my group’s efforts. The Koch brothers are paying the charter school lobby and have a privatization agenda, to take money out of our public schools and put it in their pockets. And we tried to draw the picture for her and help her understand the harm that was being done in other states.
She pretended to get it and even told me to my face that she was going to vote against it — or at least ask really hard questions and if they couldn’t answer them, vote against it. And then she ended up asking a really soft question and then voted for it anyway.
We made a list of everyone who voted for the charter school bill and a targeted and recruited people to run across the state. We have 30 educators all over the state that are running. And then so I went back to the list and there was one more senator sitting there with nobody against her. And I said, I guess I know what I need to do.
So let’s take a step back even further — what got you involved in education policy to begin with?
I got involved because my background is marketing and when we moved to our district, my son’s school didn’t have a website, didn’t have a PTA. I built them a website and I started a weekly email blast out to parents and supporters.
There’s also something in Jefferson County called Showcase of Schools every year, so we made sure we had a really nice display showcase of school. That’s important because the school is in the west end, which is the high poverty part of town.
Who creates these policies, and how do you change it?
It’s insane, the logic that’s applied by people who actually haven’t set foot in public schools in 30 years. So we started trying to really help them understand what was going on. I saw that a lot of what was happening at the district level. We formed an organization called Save Our Schools Kentucky. The legislature couldn’t get the charter school bill passed until the very last day of session in 2017. So that was good. We slowed it down quite a bit and we made it less bad than it would have been, which is not great, but it’s still better than before.
So they got the charter school language in, but there was no funding mechanism. On the last day of session they passed House Bill 520, which was the language that allowed for charter schools to exist. And then they ran over to an Appropriations Committee meeting and stuck in some funding for it. It was only a makeshift funding bill. We still don’t have charter schools here because we haven’t even gotten to the point where they can open for business. The first applications are now being accepted, but we don’t have funding for it this year either.
So where is the fight now?
During the legislative session in 2018, when they were hoping to get permanent funding, we actually stopped it. We had people protesting for every day of the session, holding signs and greeting legislators as they came, to make sure they felt the pressure. And so we were able to stop the funding mechanism for charter schools. There were a number of other bills that made public schools less competitive, and we stopped those as well.
Then Governor Matt Bevin announced that there was going to be a special meeting to discuss the firing of the education commissioner. And they did it, they fired our commissioner and replaced members on the statewide board with pro-charter people. So now our K-to-12 has no one on it that understands public education. It’s an entire board made up of people who are pro-charter schools. And now he’s announced that they want to take over our democratically elected school board in Jefferson County, the state’s largest district.
People have been protesting hard, and filling the capitol, but this is still a Republican-leaning state. What are your chances?
This isn’t and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. There were a number of Republicans that voted for public schools last year. We need to get people who truly understand public education in as many seats as possible. And there were some good Republicans running in those rural districts. It’s not likely to get a Democrat in those districts, so if you can get the pro-public education Republican in the seat, then that’s great.
There are a lot of rural parts of the state, with mostly white people, so every time we talk about racial divides, people don’t want to do it. People actually consider you to be divisive by bringing in a race. And I’m like, no, you have to be inclusive in bringing up race. And so what plays well in the urban district is different than what plays well in rural districts. But for the most part I think we’re very united.