John Kuhn
Courtesy John Kuhn

Tyrant’s Foe: John Kuhn, Standing Tall For Test Reform


Patrick Michels

A version of this story ran in the February 2013 issue.

Above: John Kuhn

There was one word in particular, John Kuhn recalls, that “pushed me over the edge.” The word was “non-negotiable.”

Two years ago, then-state Sen. Florence Shapiro was explaining the debate over how many billions the Legislature would cut from Texas’ budget for teachers, aides and other school expenses. But, Shapiro said, the price of Texas’ new standardized tests—almost $500 million over five years—was simply “non-negotiable.”

Shapiro, a former teacher who was then the Senate’s top decider on public education, took questions after her speech. Kuhn stood up and said it sounded like she was “saving the test but not the teachers.”

Kuhn was a young superintendent at Perrin-Whitt CISD, northwest of Fort Worth, at the time, with fewer than 400 kids split between Perrin Elementary and Perrin High School. Kuhn had graduated from the latter in 1994.

“I have written a million rants about government insanity in guiding educational policy over the course of my career, but I have always deleted them after venting,” he explained to Education Week. “But not this time.”

In his hotel room that night he drafted a new rant, this one styled after William B. Travis’ famous letter from the Alamo. “Gentlemen—I am besieged, by a hundred or more of the Legislators under Rick Perry,” he began. “I have sustained a continual Bombardment of increased high-stakes testing and accountability-related bureaucracy and a cannonade of gross underfunding.”

He sent the letter to the four lawmakers whose district boundaries intersected Perrin-Whitt, to his hometown newspaper, and to Diane Ravitch, the education historian who’s become the nation’s leading voice against the test-heavy reform movement. His letter reached Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss, who reprinted it. Kuhn was invited to speak his mind at a college in Denton, then at a rally in Austin, then at another in Washington, D.C.

He’d stroll to the podium, looking like just another country guy in a T-shirt (which he was), but speaking like a man possessed. He didn’t deliver so much as unleash his remarks—rabid defenses of the role of public schools in democratic society, radical empathy for the pain endured by teachers. Kuhn was known about as well in Washington as he was in Austin that first year, which is to say not very well at all.

But soon he started getting letters of support from teachers across the country. He’d tapped into a rich vein of resistance to reformers who would quantify and monetize every teachable moment with a test. “It turns out there’s this subculture of public-education activists out there, and it’s national,” he recognized. Before long, Kuhn, the unassuming leader of a small rural district, became one of its most popular voices.

School reform debates are most often urban affairs, centered on cities like Washington, D.C., Detroit and New York City. Kuhn says having grown up in Perrin is key to his appreciation for what schools should be.

Kuhn always thought he’d be a writer, a journalist maybe. But after two years living in Peru after college, Kuhn returned to Texas and took a job teaching Spanish. He took over as Perrin-Whitt’s superintendent in 2009, just in time to start cutting his staff to keep up with budget cuts. As Texas expanded its testing, there wasn’t much Kuhn could do but tell teachers to prep for the test. “I can give a good speech, but when the rubber hits the road I’m just as bad as everybody else,” he says. “Because I don’t have a choice.”

So, on the side, he speaks up in solidarity with teachers who feel isolated in their classrooms, stressed out over test preparation and the prospect of being labeled a failure when the scores come back. That’s the thinking behind one of Kuhn’s most rousing lines from his speech in Washington, addressed directly to teachers:

“You will fail to take the shattered children of poverty and turn them into the polished products of the private schools. You will be ‘unacceptable,’ public school teacher, and I say that is your badge of honor.”

“I understand the idealism of saying, ‘every kid can learn.’ I agree completely,” he says. “The point is, it doesn’t do anybody any good to lie and pretend like these other challenges don’t exist.” What turns him off about the school-reform movement, about the way politicians sell charter schools, vouchers, or test-based merit pay for teachers, is the promise of miracle solutions to complicated problems.

“I think there’s a large percentage of teachers who kind of have this quiet angst about how they’re being treated,” he says. “I think I’m fairly typical. It’s just that I’m maybe not smart enough to keep my mouth shut.”