Reviewing Kentucky’s Education Power Structure: Vicki Phillips

Reviewing Kentucky’s Education Power Structure: Vicki Phillips

Vicki Phillips

There is a reason why Kentucky was the first state to adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards.  As noted in earlier articles, Kentucky’s power structure consists of Gene Wilhoit, Terry Holliday, Steve Beshear, David Adkisson, and Vicki Phillips, along with a bureaucratic framework that rivals most any other state.  And the timing was right as well.

In 2009 the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1. This legislation mandated new academic standards focused on the “critical knowledge, skills and capacities needed for success in the global economy.”  The Senate Bill 1 steering committee supported collaboration with the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), then led by former Kentucky Education Commissioner and Executive Director of the CCSSO, Gene Wilhoit, in the Common Core State Standards project.  In February of 2010, Governor Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Department of Education, with Education Commissioner, Terry Holliday, adopted the Common Core State Standards (although not yet completed and without our elected legislators’ involvement).

What made the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards in Kentucky work so well, was and still is, the major financial assistance provided by Vicki Phillips, Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since 2007.

Vicki Phillips grew up in in the small, poor, but well-named rural Kentucky town called Falls of Rough.  Not expected to amount to much, a high school friend of hers persuaded her to go to college.  She received her Bachelor’s and her Master’s from Western Kentucky University and her Doctor of Education from the University of Lincoln in England (2002).  She has worked as a teacher, served seven years as Assistant Chief Executive to the Kentucky Commissioner of Education; Superintendent of Schools in Lancaster, PA (1998-2003); Chief State School Officer for PA (2003-2004); Superintendent of Schools in Portland, OR (2004-2007); and then the Director of Education, College-Ready for the Gates Foundation.  She is still very close with her colleagues in Kentucky and has issued grants of more than $30 Million (2009-2014) to fund many of their programs.  She and Gene Wilhoit are both active as keynote speakers at numerous education conferences.

As Director of Education, College-Ready for the Gates Foundation, she has coordinated with the NGA and the CCSSO and with the Gates funding has offered consulting assistance to states for their Race to the Top applications, which in turn has led to 40+ states adopting the Common Core State Standards, its aligned assessments, data collection, teacher evaluations, etc. 

A look back at her perceived successes, while serving as the Superintendent of Portland schools, may provide some insight to her filling the position at the Gates Foundation.  While the superintendent position in the famously progressive, consensus-driven city, she closed six schools, merged nearly two dozen others through K-8 conversions, pushed to standardize the district’s curriculum, and championed new controversial measures for testing the district’s 46,000 children without much concern about the effects on the neighborhoods and schools.  A local newspaper nicknamed her “Hurricane Vicki”.

Yet Portland’s business leaders called Phillips a strong leader in a time of crisis.  With a diminishing school population and tight school budgets, she was, in their eyes, a “Rising Star”.  “She’s decisive, she’s fact-based, she’s inclusive, she listens, and she’s not afraid to change her mind when the facts tell her to change her mind,” said Sandra McDonough, President and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance.

Many teachers, however, saw Phillips’ efforts as “top-down” and disingenuously urgent.  “Her vision of an ideal school system was one with a powerful centralized office that was always reacting to problems with new mandates-sometimes, it felt, capricious,” says Karl Meiner, a high school English teacher in the district.

Even more teachers worried that the effects of her reforms would be a wholesale dumbing down of Portland’s schools.  Teachers warned against “cookie cutter” schools as Phillips pushed for what she called equity and the teachers called sameness.  “Once she knew what she wanted to do, she just did it no matter what,” says Hyung Nam, a Portland high school social studies teacher. 

Being ambitious, attuned to the concerns of business, with a legacy of top-down decisions, and standardization offered with a rhetoric of equity, Vicki Phillips, in August of 2007, became the Director of Education, College-Ready program of the Gates Foundation, with a purse of $3.4 Billion, a sum far greater than the discretionary funds in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2008 budget.

Phillips is a force to be reckoned with: “Truly, because money talks so loudly in this country, it makes her, by default, the nation’s Director of Education, in control of $3 billion smackers.” says education activist, Susan Ohanian. 

So, with the national stature of Vicki Phillips, her access to unbelievable amounts of funds, and being a home-grown product, makes her a major player in the power structure here in Kentucky.  Between Governor Beshear, Commissioner Terry Holliday, Gene Wihoit, currently the Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Education at UK, David Adkisson, President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and their dear friend Vicki Phillips, is there anything this power structure cannot do, whether it is in the best interest of Kentucky’s children, or otherwise? 


Wayne M. Meyer, AIA

A Father and Grandfather                                                                                                                          A 40+ Year Professional                                                                       


(Read about the other power structure members in the KACC Archives)


Terry Donoghue

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