Kentucky Is Learning That You Can't Have School Without Teachers

Dozens of school districts will close again as Kentucky teachers protest the "dismantling" of public education.
Kentucky teachers rally outside the state Capitol on April 2. They plan to return on Friday to protest pension changes, potential budget cuts and charter schools.
Kentucky teachers rally outside the state Capitol on April 2. They plan to return on Friday to protest pension changes, potential budget cuts and charter schools.
Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

LOUISVILLE ― School districts across Kentucky will once again shut down as teachers plan to flood the state Capitol on Friday to rally for public-school funding and protest newly signed changes to public pension programs.

As of Thursday afternoon, at least 36 districts had decided to close Friday, citing teachers calling in sick or the likelihood that they would. The closures include public schools in Louisville and Lexington ― the two largest school districts in the state.

Friday will mark at least the third day of widespread forced closures since Kentucky’s state Legislature passed the pension overhaul in a late-night vote two weeks ago. The day after the vote, teachers called in sick and closed schools in more than 25 counties.

The following Monday, an estimated 5,000 teachers protested in Frankfort, and schools in each of the state’s 120 counties that were not already closed for spring break shut down.

“We’re encouraging people to show up in force and make sure our legislators and our governor hear loud and clear that we shall not be moved,” said Gay Adelmann, the co-founder and president of Save Our Schools Kentucky. The nonprofit advocacy group has organized protests in Frankfort throughout the 2018 legislative session and will demonstrate again Friday.

Kentucky’s teacher protests, unlike those in West Virginia and Oklahoma, have focused largely on pension changes. The overhaul, which Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed into law Wednesday, includes small reforms that will reduce benefits for some current teachers and public employees, and will also convert pensions into “hybrid” 401(k)-style plans for new hires.

The pension legislation, however, was merely the spark that set ablaze decades of teacher frustration over education funding and the treatment of Kentucky’s public schools.

That frustration began to boil over last year when the Legislature, fully in Republican control for the first time in nearly a century, passed a bill to allow charter schools in the state.

The issue was the potential “diversion of public money into charters,” said David Allen, a former president of the Kentucky Education Association.

“That laid the groundwork,” Allen said.

“It’s a dismantling, step by step by step, of public education.”

- Pam Dossett, Kentucky teacher

Then, in January, Bevin proposed drastic cuts to schools and public education programs, even though funding was already tight. In inflation-adjusted terms, Kentucky’s K-12 budget was down 16 percent since 2008, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Bevin’s proposal prompted dire warnings from school superintendents around the state, who said some cuts would push Kentucky’s poorest school districts to the brink of insolvency.

“Teachers have been easy targets for a long time,” said Travis Gay, a teacher in Adair County who has helped organize teachers through Facebook groups and grassroots campaigns. But now, he said, it’s even worse.

“I don’t think there is any way to look at it other than as an attack on public education,” Gay said.

Many Kentucky teachers, meanwhile, have come to believe that Bevin’s approach to education isn’t driven by the interests of taxpayers or its public schools. They see it as part of a broader movement, led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to further privatize education by deliberately undermining public schools.

“It’s a dismantling, step by step by step, of public education,” said Pam Dossett, a teacher in Hopkinsville. “So they can sit back and say, ‘Our public schools, they’re not working.’ And then they can replace them all with charter schools.”

So while Kentucky teachers held smaller protests throughout the first three months of the year, they were pushed over the edge by the pension bill and the manner in which it was passed: Republican leaders attached it at the last minute to unrelated public wastewater legislation. At last week’s rally in Frankfort, teacher after teacher called that moment a “breaking point.”

Like their counterparts in Oklahoma and West Virginia, teachers here are also angry over more than 20 years of budget cuts and funding reductions. Those cuts have eroded major gains the state’s teachers and schools won the last time educators walked off the job en masse, in 1988.

Those protests led to a state Supreme Court decision that ordered Kentucky to reform its public school system. The state Legislature, then under Democratic control, passed a $1.3 billion tax increase to help fund an overhaul that earned national praise.

But since then, Kentucky has undergone 20 separate rounds of budget cuts, according to Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Not all of them have hit education, but many have. As a result, the funding gaps between poor rural districts and larger, wealthier ones that sparked the 1990 education reform effort have begun to widen again.

Educators, meanwhile, have been forced to teach with outdated textbooks that haven’t been replaced in years. Louisville teacher Andrew Bailey told HuffPost last week that he hasn’t received new books since 2008. As in other states, teachers have increasingly had to purchase supplies for their classrooms with their own money.

And they’re being squeezed in other ways. Teachers in Kentucky are facing more stringent testing and accountability standards from both the state and federal governments, and they’re required to obtain a master’s degree to maintain state certification ― without any tuition assistance of course. Put it all together, and educators feel they aren’t remotely close to getting the resources they need.

“There’s pressure on us to fulfill mandates that we don’t have the resources to fulfill,” Dossett said. “It’s nearly impossible to fulfill what they want us to.”

The state’s education budget will be a major issue at Friday’s rally. Amid the protests last week, the Legislature restored funding for many of the education-related programs Bevin had initially sought to cut.

Teachers were far from satisfied with the overall budget, which still left Kentucky’s K-12 public schools with less per-pupil funding, on an inflation-adjusted basis, than they received a decade ago. But many saw it as a better alternative to Bevin’s, especially because it met a key demand by dropping any funding for charter schools.

Bevin nevertheless vetoed the Legislature’s budget this week.

Widespread teacher walkouts forced more than 25 Kentucky school districts to close two weeks ago. At least 36 will be closed on Friday amid more protests.
Widespread teacher walkouts forced more than 25 Kentucky school districts to close two weeks ago. At least 36 will be closed on Friday amid more protests.
Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

Legislators could still vote to override Bevin’s vetoes. If they don’t, though, they will have little time to reach a compromise that will please the governor, as the state’s 2018 legislative session ends Saturday.

That has sparked fears among many Kentucky teachers that the absence of a budget could leave Bevin with wide discretion over state finances, a position that could allow him to cut public education budgets as he’d initially attempted, and potentially restore funding for charters.

No raises for 10 years, no respect for our pensions anymore,” said Mike Haile, a retired teacher from Henderson County.

Because the legislative session is about to close, walkouts and protests could soon end too. But the movement won’t, teachers insist.

On Thursday, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, joined teachers and police unions in suing to stop the pension overhaul, arguing that it violates the state constitution.

More than 40 teachers are now running for public office in Kentucky in an effort to unseat legislators who voted in favor of charter schools and the pension overhaul, and last week’s protests inspired at least four more to launch write-in campaigns.

And as Kentucky educators have drawn inspiration from teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia, they have begun to organize in new ways. Bevin may lay blame for teacher opposition at the feet of unions like the Kentucky Education Association and the Jefferson County Teachers Association ― members of which he said were acting with a “thug mentality” ― but teachers said the protests are largely the result of grassroots organizing. They credit groups like Save Our Schools Kentucky and Kentucky 120 United, which has created regional Facebook groups to connect teachers across the state.

Now, Kentucky teachers see their movement as a chance to take the lead nationally in the fight for the future of public education.

“Kentucky is a critical place for this movement, and we’re at a critical time for this movement nationally,” said Save Our Schools’ Adelmann. “Kentucky was progressive and led the way in education reform 28 years ago, and we’re going to do it again.”

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