Chattanoogan: Ken Meyer – Reaching Students In Their World

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

“There is a difference between policy and politics,” says former State Representative Ken Meyer. “Politics gets into the personal, nasty back-biting. Policy, however, is a discussion of the policy themselves and what impact that they will have. I try to keep my conversations at a policy level because I don’t like politics, but I love policy.”

Chattanooga born and raised, Ken was the fifth of six children born to Walter and Evy (Scharlemann) Meyer. Ken’s father was in the insurance business and a musician for decades. At 83 years old, Walt still enjoys playing bass and delighting the generations who enjoy early jazz and swing music. Ken’s mother came to Tennessee from Minnesota. She went to nursing school in the 50s and, when she married, raising her six children became her calling.

As a boy, Ken wanted to join the Air Force and become a flight surgeon. His interests moved to engineering by the time he would attend college at UTC, but ultimately he changed his major to economics during the Carter administration when the country was experiencing economic decline.

“I read a book by Milton Friedman who is a noted PhD and economist and it all made complete sense to me.  My father had introduced me to the thought process and then I ran across the book ‘Free to Choose’,” Ken says.

Ken was not used to seeing the country in such bad shape and, when Ronald Reagan took office, he became very interested in financial world affairs and really paid attention.

“I absolutely believed in everything Reagan stood for and I voted for him in the first presidential election that I was able to vote,” Ken says.

Ken had known his wife Sheena while they were in high school, but they didn’t start dating until they were in college. They married in 1980.

When Sheena became pregnant with Ken Jr. (nicknamed KJ) it postponed Ken’s plans to graduate. His son was born prematurely which brought insurmountable medical bills requiring the 22-year-old to work full time at his father’s insurance business.

“I got my credentials to sell mutual funds and got into the finance part of it. It was good for my family and also got me involved in the community with civic affairs,” Ken says.

“I was very involved with the Chattanooga Jaycees (a very robust organization at the time) and that led to an invitation from my friend Duane Smith to start getting involved in political organizations. I had no interest in politics – none,” Ken declares.

Ken joined “Young Republicans” in which Duane was chairman (and Ken later became chairman) and in 1990, he ran headstrong to win the seat as a state representative defeating 18-year-incumbent Paul Starnes.

“I really had no desire to run for the legislature and going through that process, but the Tennessee Republican Party came to me and asked me if I would run and I accepted the challenge,” Ken says respectfully. “I wanted to prove that a long term incumbent could be defeated - especially a long term incumbent who had forgotten about his constituents.”

Ken had been involved in other campaigns and understood what it took to win, but he also knew how to effectively use new technology to help his campaign.

“I was a closet geek. I was using technology that was not commonplace at that time because they didn’t know how,” Ken says.

Ken’s team used targeted mailings utilizing computers. He remembers studying a Lotus 1-2-3 spread sheet and, for its time, it was very sophisticated.

“We also knocked on about 8,000 doors. A lot of great people were helping. We did things smart but we also worked our tails off and proved that the system does work,” Ken affirms.

Ken didn’t have a strong desire to stay in the legislature for a long period, but he wanted to address matters from a true policy perspective of free market economics and apply it to the issues of the day which included introducing the first charter school bill in Tennessee.

“At the time only one or two states in the country had charter schools and now they are in nearly every state. It is a free market approach to educational reform,” Ken states.

Ken cared about education for each child as much as he cared about it for his own. It was his desire to present smarter ideas in which students and their parents could benefit.

“When I introduced a voucher bill I was proposing to get low income students that were in failing schools or were at risk, and take the tax money that is being spent on that child and let them get their education wherever they can find it - a private school or parochial school whatever – to give their parents the opportunity to make that choice. I was argumentative about other issues about government spending and as a result the leadership of the House… they didn’t…” Ken pauses and laughs guardedly, “…they didn’t care for me being there.”

When the census is taken each decade it requires state legislative lines, Congressional legislative lines and other legislative lines to be re-drawn based on the current population.

“Democrats controlled the legislature at that time and they took 12 Republicans including me and crammed us into six districts forcing 12 of us to run against each other.  So in 1992, I was in a situation to run in a Republican primary against sitting 24-year incumbent David Copeland,” Ken explains.

In spite of the odds, with more hard work and dexterity, Ken unseated Copeland who he said was supporting a state income tax which Tennessee has never had.

“Copeland was a good guy, but that is where we differed on economic issues that were very prevalent at the time and, from a Republican respective, I was on a better side of that issue,” Ken says.

In 1994, the Congressional seat opened up and Ken decided to make a run for the seat but was defeated by Zach Wamp in the primary.

“That forced me back into the private sector where I described myself as a ‘born again capitalist’,” Ken chuckles.

Today, Ken is the director of governmental affairs with K¹² Inc. a for-profit education company that sells online schooling and curriculum to state and local governments.

“It is virtual education,” Ken says, “meaning, a child is learning from home and the teacher is teaching from home. It allows students who perhaps have a health condition and need an alternative besides learning in a classroom. These are public schools, but students are being schooled at home by via teacher through the Internet with a parent or a learning coach.”

With as many students in public schools who are not being well-served, Ken insists it is critical to offer this form of education especially when this generation functions by technology and the Internet more than the former methods.

“Virtual education is not for every student by any means, but for those students who need this opportunity, it is life changing,” Ken maintains.  

“There is a lot of bullying going on in schools today and the schools are not equipped to deal with these kinds of issues. K¹² Inc. gives the student an opportunity to get a first-rate education moving at their own pace, but still being taught by a Tennessee certified teacher in a Tennessee certified school while allowing them to escape any emotional trauma they me be going through. It could even benefit the student who is an advanced musician or an athlete who trains regularly and needs the alternative to sitting in a classroom. We are reaching students ‘in their world’. They live through their iPads, iPhones and computers. We are educating them in their world versus teaching them from methods which are not relevant to them today,” Ken insists.

Before joining K¹² Inc. Ken became knowledgeable on the “No Child Left Behind” act. He was asked to join the Bush administration and on Sept. 11, 2001 he headed on a plane to Washington D.C.

“It was my last interview for the position and I flew out of Chattanooga and was grounded in Memphis. I had never heard anything like it when the announcement that all flights had been grounded - it was surreal,” Ken says recalling the day America was violently attacked.

“It took six months for things to settle down, but I ended up going to work for the Bush administration in 2002 as the deputy assistant secretary for inter-governmental, inter-agency and corporate affairs and my job was to travel the country explaining the No Child Left Behind act. I became a walking expert on that law and that was what put me in the world of education reform at that level,” Ken expresses.

Ken still travels to Washington, D.C. quite often and he and Sheena will visit their son KJ who works in D.C. with a consulting firm whose primary client is the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal agencies that require top secret security clearance.

Sheena is the retail advertising manager with the 157-year-old Cleveland Daily Banner.

The couple currently live next door to the house in which Ken grew up. His father still lives in that house, but more interestingly, Zach Wamp (who Ken ran against in 1994) grew up next door to Ken. “His father was an architect and it is a one of a kind house,” Ken says.

Ken still hops on a plane each week hoping to make a difference in the betterment of education.

 “It is not from within, it has to happen through education choice by providing better alternatives and, tax money needs to follow that child,” Ken vows. “The tax dollars don’t belong to the school system - they belong to the parents of the children.”

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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