What road will lead Kentucky teachers forward?

April 23, 2018

Pranav Jani and Flynn Murray look at the latest developments in the teachers' struggle in Kentucky, with additional reporting from Frankfort contributed by Robin Gee, Ellie Hamrick, Fainan Lakha, Will Myers, Lea Ramirez and Samuel Richards.

SOME 5,000 Kentucky students, unionists, social justice activists and others rallied at the state Capitol building in Frankfort on April 13 to stand up for public education.

Shutting down schools in 30 counties, teachers led the way as hundreds filled the inside of the Capitol. When state troopers tried to enforce limits on how many could enter, a deafening chant of "Let us in!" rose up from the crowd.

Thousands more people covered the statehouse grounds, carrying placards with slogans like: "Fund our future," "We are not a math problem: You cannot divide us" and--referring to notorious Tea Party Gov. Matt Bevin--"Students, students what do you see? We see Bevin taking our money!"

The rally was a powerful demonstration of teachers' voices and commitment and a day for other unions, students and activists to show solidarity.

But the size of the protest was smaller than the dramatic rally a week and a half earlier on April 2, when schools in all 120 counties of the state were shut down in defiance of the Republican-led legislature's pension reform bill and its anti-worker tax and budget legislation, which passed later that day.

Kentucky teachers and students rallying in the Capitol building
Kentucky teachers and students rallying in the Capitol building (Flynn Murray | SW)

Since then, the militancy of the movement has been dampened by the unwillingness of the official leadership of the teachers' union to forge ahead in the face of a legislative impasse.

On April 9, Bevin vetoed Republican-sponsored bills that imposed an anti-worker budget and tax "reform." But Bevin's vetoes came from the right--he demanded that the legislature consider deeper spending cuts and bigger tax breaks for the rich.

In the fight between the Republican governor and Republican legislators, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) threw its weight behind the legislature, supporting the successful effort to override Bevin's vetoes.

In the process, teachers' growing anger and resolve was demobilized after April 2, with union officials speaking out against further walkouts and school shutdowns and in favor of a lobbying and electoral strategy.

Even #KY 120 United, the grassroots teachers group that called for the mass sick-outs that were so successful on March 30 and April 2, was divided on the question of walking out on April 13, leading to sharp debates among teachers within the group.

This is why the protests on April 13 and 14 were smaller than before. "We will remember in November" and "Vote them out" were two of the more popular slogans.

But though less visible, many teacher activists who came to the protests have been involved in intensive local organizing efforts--and they say they were ready to move and inspired by national teachers strikes and walkouts.

Kerr Medley, a teacher in Jefferson County, said in an interview: "I think that we should have been striking all week." Alex Carr of Lincoln County added, "This wouldn't be happening without West Virginia."

Krystal Spencer of Save Our Schools Kentucky said vigilance and mobilization was required--especially since Bevin recently appointed pro-charter school members to the Kentucky Board of Education:

Charters will disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable communities...Fighting for public education goes beyond our elections, and we need to keep that momentum going. It isn't the time to let that momentum die and come back in November.

Sarabeth Clark, a teacher in Lexington, pointed to the underlying drive to privatization that is ruining public education:

Privatizing education is the wrong way to go. Schooling should not be about profit, but about creating an enlightened people. Instead, the rich people are getting richer, and I don't think that's a quest for enlightening people.

IF YOU read the mainstream media, April 13 was a "teacher victory." Bevin's vetoes were overturned, and the KEA, the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA, representing school workers in the state's most populous county, which includes Louisville) and other forces declared that they had secured an education budget for two years.

The JCTA acknowledged the imperfections of the budget and tax bills in an April 17 statement on its Facebook page, but concluded: "All in all, given the fiscally conservative composition of the General Assembly, the budget and revenue package was remarkably favorable to public education and public education employees."

A temporary alliance with Republican legislators against the hated Bevin was necessary, the argument goes, to hold off an even worse education budget later on. As one Kentucky labor activist said in an interview, it was like going back to the legislature and saying: "I'll take that punch in the mouth you originally offered."

But besides minimizing the real harm these bills will do--including funding education through regressive taxes and slashing the state's higher education budget--the KEA/JCTA strategy of focusing on the legislature and elections presents a narrow understanding of what it will take to actually make public education thrive.

It's easy to understand why anyone would want to avoid a budget crafted by Bevin, a Trump clone who made a heartless attack on teachers and parents for protesting: "I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them. I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone."

The KEA rightfully condemned Bevin, and on Monday, April 16, many teachers organized a campaign to wear black for a "Black Out Bevin" Day.

BUT THE problem goes beyond Bevin. The entire strategy of seeing legislative policy as the ground upon which teachers have to struggle leaves them at the mercy of the whims of politicians.

After all, these are the same Republican legislators who underhandedly passed a Bevin-supported proposal to restructure pensions--leaving public employees' retirement savings at the mercy of the financial markets--by sneaking into a sewer construction bill considered late in the evening on March 29.

These are the same Republican legislators who passed HB 169 on April 14, a racist anti-gang bill that the social justice group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth calls the "Youth Incarceration Bill."

The KEA's strategy of voting for Democrats in November may also backfire. Democrats have long collaborated in gutting funding for public education and other social spending, and they've led the way in the push for privatization and standardized testing, both nationally and in Kentucky.

In 2012, for instance, Bevin's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear presided over budget cuts that slashed public services and higher education, leading to pay freezes and layoffs. In Chicago, the anti-teacher policies of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are legendary, with the Democratic mayor closing more public schools in one fell swoop than any mayor in history.

The politicians of both parties will, at the end of the day, justify cuts to public spending, citing economic woes and "fiscal responsibility"--while the rich enjoy their ever-growing wealth.

Refusing to organize a struggle against austerity and right-wing attacks on all issues can have the effect of dividing teachers and others between those who want more education funds and those who want social justice.

In fact, as the Guardian reported, right-wing outfits funded by the notorious Koch brothers are trying to widen this divide, pumping out propaganda claiming that, for example, "Teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families."

Only a social justice unionism model that sees the fight for education as central to a larger fight against class inequality, racial division and gender division will be able to counter these lies and build solidarity.

IN FACT, the April 13 rally showed that teachers and many others recognize the deep social crisis impacting everyone--and they want to widen and deepen the struggle.

The rally was led by non-teacher groups like Save Our Schools Kentucky and co-sponsored by dozens of others. They raised slogans about defending public education--but also against the regressive tax bill, against cuts to higher education in the budget bill and against the racist anti-gang bill.

Participants included student activists who had clearly been radicalized by the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against gun violence. These young students of color got on bullhorns and chanted: "West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky," "Don't cut it, fund it" and "Black Lives Matter!"

In fact, some of these students said they had attended rallies organized by teachers at their own schools the day before the Frankfort protests--a clear sign of a growing effort by teachers to build wider solidarity.

Socialists from the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America coordinated their efforts and spent the protest days talking to teachers and activists about conditions in schools, their motivation to keep agitating and how they understand the forces arrayed against them.

Teachers and supporters told us that in the wake of a decade of statewide cuts to education, local counties are trying to increase property, utility and business taxes to fill in the funding gaps. The poorer parts of the state haven't been able to raise as much from these taxes, and their schools have crumbled as a result.

Kerr Medley, who teaches in the urbanized Jefferson County, has nevertheless experienced some of the worst of these conditions firsthand. She works in a school filled with asbestos, yet her school remains open.

The school's pitiful excuse for dealing with the asbestos problem is to tell teachers not to nail anything into the walls. Meanwhile, she frequently has to stop her students from playing with the floor tiles that are coming loose--they are also contaminated with asbestos.

Medley is also the mother of three kids. She talked about how many teachers space out having their children by three years so that they can bank up enough sick days to spend time with a new child--because there is no maternity leave for teachers in Kentucky. Medley herself had to go back to work eight and a half weeks after giving birth to her last child.

TEACHERS FROM across the state have horror stories to tell about conditions--and why it will take a big funding increase to change things. As Michelle Randolph, a teacher in a majority Black and immigrant school in Jefferson County, put it, "You can't put a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound."

But with such a brazen attempt to crush public schools has come national resistance. Many in Kentucky are looking to the lessons of neighboring West Virginia, taking heart from what teachers were able to extract from the state's Republican coal-baron governor, Jim Justice.

David Sullivan of Mercer County insisted that "striking is our only option to win real political gains...They're stealing our pensions, and this has been a way to awaken people. These attacks might be the kind of thing to draw people in."

The Kentucky struggle is at a crossroads, but, like people all over the country, teachers and activists are learning how to forge new leadership on the ground--and the value of independent, rank-and-file, social justice organizing.

As a longtime Kentucky resident and activist said in an interview: "This is literally the first activism rodeo for the vast majority of these people. They had to get a crash course in everything from following the campaign donor money to even learning their own rights as workers."

The teachers have gained much already, experiencing firsthand the possibilities of rank-and-file self-activity and the betrayal of politicians, and figuring out how to organize their own schools and communities.

It may have started in West Virginia, but the teachers' revolt is continuing to play out Kentucky and Oklahoma. Colorado teachers closed schools last week to rally at their Capitol, and Arizona teachers have voted to strike starting April 26.

This is a one of the first strike waves the U.S. has experienced in decades. Though the conditions and outcomes vary among these different teachers' struggles, the fact remains that educators are coming together from all the states to fight for our schools.

As Jay Dennis, a Louisville Teamster who attended the April 13 rally, put it:

The fight is just starting. We have a very active movement. As you can see, the teachers really have organized this movement. I think we're often forgotten on a national level, but we are very active in Kentucky. That's not just confined to the labor movement, but a number of social organizations work with us as well. You haven't seen anything yet.

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