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Some Kentucky teachers close schools as legislature returns

Kentucky capitol
Posted at 1:18 PM, Mar 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-12 13:57:12-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — One of the country's largest school districts was forced to close for the fourth time in two weeks on Tuesday as about a third of its teachers called in sick so they could continue protesting at the Kentucky Capitol.

Officials in Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville and has more than 98,000 students, had hoped to avoid another closure by sending a delegation of teachers to Frankfort to represent the district. But shortly after 7 p.m. on Monday, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin posted a video on his Twitter page with the caption "SICK OF 'SICKOUTS,'" where he accused teachers of "walking out on students."

Three hours later, the district announced it would close because it did not have enough substitutes to cover for absent teachers, a move that also forced the postponement of ACT testing for about 6,000 juniors. But some teachers at the Capitol on Tuesday said Bevin's tweet did not influence their decision.

"This was already planned. This wasn't a response to his tweet last night," said Emilie Blanton, a 34-year-old English teacher at Southern High School in Jefferson County. "This is a response to the gross negligence, to legislation that he has caused to happen."

Tuesday's closure in Kentucky continues a wave of teacher activism that began last year with a statewide teachers' strike in West Virginia that quickly spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. This year, teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, have gone on strike seeking better pay and benefits.

In Kentucky, teachers are worried about several proposals moving through the state legislature, including one that would award tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for children with special needs and from low- to middle-income homes to attend private schools. An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission shows that bill would cost the state more than $209 million by 2025 — money teachers and other advocates say should be spent on public education.

But by Tuesday morning, the only chance that bill had to pass this year was as an amendment to a tax bill that mostly affects nonprofits and corporations. Republican state Rep. Stephen Rudy, who is chairman of the committee assigned to work on that bill, said "I don't think there is a will" to include the tax credits in the legislation.

Hundreds of teachers who crammed into the cavernous halls of the ornate Capitol claimed victory, including Blanton.

"I believe us coming here and putting a microscope to the whole process is causing them to maybe check some things," she said. "They know they are being watched."

Rudy, however, said the scholarship tax credit proposal would likely not have passed anyway, citing concerns about how much money it would cost the state during tight budget times as lawmakers struggle to fully fund the state's pension obligations.

"There is merit in what they (tax credit supporters) are trying to do," Rudy said. "I've got to look at the policy versus what it means to the bottom line. My concern is the dollar amount attached to it."

Tuesday's closure amplified Bevin's clash with teachers and education advocates as he seeks a second term this year. In a video posted to the governor's official YouTube channel, Bevin said teachers who called in sick were "walking out on students, leaving them in the lurch."

"If you are parents whose kids are in schools, as I am, you should be offended by this," Bevin said. Bevin has nine children, at least two of whom have attended public schools, according to a tweet he sent last year.

Bevin faces three Republican challengers in the primary, including state Rep. Robert Goforth, who has criticized Bevin for "bullying" teachers and other public employees. Four Democrats are seeking the nomination to challenge him, including Attorney General Andy Beshear, whose running mate is a teacher, and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, whose running mate is a former Jefferson County Public Schools board member.