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A year after teacher strikes, some lawmakers ready for fight

Posted at 12:26 AM, Mar 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-02 00:26:30-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — On the day a Republican state lawmaker was to present his bill on how teacher pension funds would be managed, Kentucky teachers closed six public school districts so they could pack the committee room in protest.

“Before I begin, I would like to offer an apology,” Republican Rep. Ken Upchurch said, as teachers leaned in to hear what he would say. “I would like to apologize to the parents in at least two major school districts ... ”

But groans and hissing from teachers cut him short. “Don’t bait us!” one woman yelled.

Successful walkouts last year empowered teachers pushing for better conditions, but some red-state lawmakers have shown a willingness to push back this year, putting forward legislation that has sparked a new wave of action.

In West Virginia, again the first state to erupt, Senate Republicans started with a sweeping education measure with provisions seemingly aimed squarely at teachers and the unions representing them.

In Arizona, where teachers staged a six-day walkout that ended when the Republican-controlled legislature gave them a 20 percent raise last year, three proposed bills this year target protests and political speech by teachers. But those bills are likely dead for the year, and educators haven’t walked out.

Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend, who sponsored one of the measures, told the Arizona Capitol Times that they were a direct response to last year’s walkout.

In Oklahoma, a year after that state’s Republican-led Legislature approved an average annual raise of $6,100 for teachers, some lawmakers remain upset that educators still walked off the job for two weeks to protest school funding levels.

Republicans introduced several bills to make rallying at the Capitol more difficult for teachers, including one making it illegal for teachers or districts to participate in a walkout and another requiring groups of more than 100 at the Capitol to post a $50,000 bond. Both are unlikely to become law.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, said union leaders have children in mind as they push for change.

“Scarcity and the lack of appropriate investment is the root cause of every single one of the teacher walkouts that are roiling this country,” Weingarten said. “Teachers want what kids need, and that requires funding our future.”

But some of this year’s walkouts have been triggered by legislation that teachers felt targeted them and their representatives directly.

In Kentucky this week, teachers staged a sickout in response to Upchurch’s bill that would dilute the Kentucky Education Association’s power to nominate members of the board that oversees their pension investments.

Teachers, and some lawmakers, viewed the Kentucky bill as Republican retaliation against the state’s largest teachers’ group for its role in last year’s protests, which closed more than 30 school districts for a day and clogged the Capitol with protesters for weeks, leading to security changes and forcing lawmakers to make concessions.

“You have changed how we do business,” Democratic Rep. Kelly Flood told teachers Thursday. “Let me assure you, when it comes to money, the only way legislators make decisions is under enormous pressure to do so.”

Kentucky Republicans were dismayed by the Thursday protests, where enough teachers in at least six school districts — including the state’s two largest systems — called in sick to force the schools to close.

“Whether you are for this bill or not, it is wildly irresponsible to do this, especially this early in the process,” Republican Rep. Jason Nemes said.

The sickout was instigated by a grassroots education group known as KY 12 United but KEA President Stephanie Winkler said teachers are involved because “public education is under attack.”

West Virginia teachers took to the picket line again last month over a complex education bill that would have created the state’s first charter schools, given teachers a pay raise and allowed education savings accounts to pay for private school. The first draft of the bill offered in the Senate included a provision that would have required teachers to re-affirm their membership in teachers unions every year.

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican, said he was surprised by the outrage.

“Some of it feels like it’s just an attempt to demonize a Republican-led legislature that’s trying to make positive change in West Virginia,” he said.

Educators protested outside schools and packed the state Capitol during the two-day walkout, panning the bill as retaliation for last year’s nine-day strike over pay raises and health insurance. The anti-union provision was removed, but the proposal eventually failed anyway.

“The educators made a very difficult decision to step out of their classrooms two years in a row, and they did it for their students,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

As West Virginia enters the homestretch of its legislative session, Lee said educators are keeping a close eye on lawmakers as the question of whether teachers will get a pay raise hangs in the air.

“We’re just watching, paying very close attention to what’s going on,” he said.