Kentucky Teachers’ Walkout Catalyzes More Advocacy

Jeff Bryant

Headlines about teachers’ strikes may have moved on from Kentucky and Oklahoma to Arizona and Colorado, but the uprisings these wildcat teachers started have not, according to numerous sources I’ve spoken with in Louisville – Kentucky’s largest school district, with over 100,000 students.

Photo credit: WVEA / CC

Kentucky is where teachers staged widespread “sick-outs” to protest state lawmakers’ handling of pension reform and school funding. After teachers won record new spending for public education in the state and then pushed legislators to override the governor’s veto of the bill, there were still plenty of vows from teachers to “keep fighting” for a permanent pension fix and more new revenue sources for schools. But will they?

A Wake-up Call

“The pension fight woke everyone up,” says Tiffany Dunn, a National Board Certified middle school English as a second language teacher, who has helped found and lead a number of grassroots teacher advocacy groups including Save Our Schools Kentucky.

“Before that, hardly anyone knew or cared” about a range of issues Dunn sees as new targets for teacher activism, including the state governor’s recent actions to stack the state education board with new appointees and a new leader who are charter school advocates. “Most teachers thought [these issues were] just a JCPS thing,” she says, referring to Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville and the surrounding county. But now she sees that teachers who first engaged on the pension issue are turning their attention to “all the issues.”

Recent actions state lawmakers have taken, including passing new legislation to bring charter schools to the state, “could have been stopped if we had the current level of activism,” Dunn believes. “But now at least people are aware.”

Kentucky Wildcats

“The pension fight was a catalyst,” says Brent McKim, the leader of the Jefferson County Teachers Association. “Also, the West Virginia teachers.” Previous to the Kentucky uprising, West Virginia’s teachers staged a successful strike in their state to win a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, limits on charter school expansions, and other demands.

The teachers’ victory in West Virginia “was a seminal moment for teachers,” McKim tells me. “It gave them a sense of possibility that if we act collectively, we can make a difference.”

McKim readily admits the wildcat nature of the strike was a challenge for union leaders as well. Because the driving proponents of the teachers’ actions consisted mostly of groups formed on social media, union leaders were often confounded in their efforts to maintain control and the accuracy of information.

“People jump to conclusions,” McKim says, based on hearsay they read online about where the union was or was not engaged in the ongoing conflict with state lawmakers. McKim sees that some teachers currently have an “inherent distrust of the establishment,” which includes the union.

“Skepticism is healthy in any democracy,” he adds, “but we did some pretty remarkable things” by increasing funding for schools. Now he sees teachers moving on to other important battles, including taking their battles “to the ballot box,” he says. “We’re printing yard signs that say “Remember in November'” to remind teachers to vote for political leaders who support public schools and teachers.

Remember in November

The coming fight at the ballot box includes not only voting for candidates but running for office. One public school advocate running for office I spoke with in Louisville is Gay Adelmann, who is trying to become the next State Senator for District 36, which includes part of the JCPS district.

Adelmann’s public school advocacy started in 2012 when she enrolled her son in a local school she came to see as underfunded and overly penalized by the state for having too many struggling students whose backgrounds of poverty and trauma were often reflected in their low scores on state standardizes tests.

Students in the school, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) magnet school located in the city’s predominantly African-American West End community, “needed common-sense barriers to learning removed” – including facility improvements, new learning materials, and technology improvements – that better resourced school usually can address.

And she saw that too many good, experienced teachers and school leaders would come and go to avoid the consequence that come from working in an “underperforming” school.

To address these and other challenges in the school, Adelmann helped form a PTA in the school, and she eventually founded Dear JCPS, in 2015, to address similar issues she saw in her school across the district. Now, she’s taking bolder action to not just react to state education policy but to help write it.

Making Schools a Priority

“I decided to run for office because my own State Senator told me she was pro public education, but then she turned around and voted for the state’s new charter school law,” Adelmann tells me. “My experience at my school drives what I will try to get done in the legislature.”

She wants to see more funding for public schools rather than having funds redirected to new charters. And she wants to see the unfairness of high-stakes standardized testing addressed. “My kids do well on these standardized tests,” she says, “but we need more supports in schools to help with the issues that affect students who don’t do well on the tests.”

She complains of “privileged white men” and “elites” in state office, with no experience in public schools, who won’t “go into these schools to see” the conditions teachers are having to deal with.

“While they may be well-intended,” she argues, their opinions of public schools and teacher are too often “piecemeal or ideological and not at all based on facts and evidence.”

Should she win, one of the first things she pledges to push for would be to form a caucus in the state legislature to write and pass new legislation devoted solely to support public schools.

Adelmann may have lots of like-minded colleagues ready to join her caucus. “At least 40 educators have filed to run for office”  in Kentucky, The Hill reports.

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