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What Would It Take For Another Educator Sickout? Could Be Scholarship Tax Credits

The grassroots teacher advocacy group KY 120 United started this week by laying out a laundry list of educators' grievances in a web post that threatens more action to shut down schools if the Kentucky legislature crosses their "lines in the sand." Now many school superintendents and school board members are also voicing strong opposition to one of KY 120's chief complaints — a proposed bill for scholarship tax credits that public school advocates call a "backdoor school voucher" measure.

Organizers behind last Thursday's sickout that shut down a handful of school districts around the state — including Jefferson County Public Schools  — have outlined specific reasons why they would be prepared to call public employees to strike.

The post published Sunday says KY 120 United will call for a strike if the Kentucky General Assembly does any of the following:

  • Attempts to provide scholarship tax credits for private schools
  • Attempts to create a funding mechanism for charter schools
  • Attempts to reduce defined pension benefits to public employees
  • Attempts to remove future school employees from inviolable contract
  • Attempts to reduce salaries of public employees

The legislation that spurred last week's sickout — House Bill 525 — was missing from the list. The bill would change the membership of the board of trustees that manages the teacher pension plan, and it could be passed by the House as early as Monday.

Kentucky's major piece of school choice legislation, House Bill 205, would create tax credits for donations to organizations that grant scholarships for children to attend private schools. It's scheduled to be discussed in a House committee Tuesday morning.

KY120 United's concern about House Bill 205 is echoed by many educators, school administrators and educator advocacy groups across Kentucky. The Kentucky Educational Development Corporation called a series of regional press conferences Monday with Kentucky superintendents who oppose the bill.

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio joined nine other superintendents from north-central Kentucky at a press conference in Shelbyville.

"I think just about every superintendent, if not all of them, are in support of standing opposed to 205, because we want to make sure that our kids have what they need to be successful," Pollio said.

The bill would allow up to 25 million dollars total in tax credits to be granted in the first year of implementation if the measure passes. Superintendents say they’re concerned that potential loss in tax revenue could hurt funding to public schools that have seen other cuts in recent years -- including funding reductions for transportation, professional development and textbooks.

"We certainly believe that we need every dollar we can get in our public schools," said Superintendent of Scott Hawkins of Woodford County Schools at the Lexington press conference. "HB205 takes dollars away."

House Bill 205 is expected to be read in the House Appropriations & Revenue Committee Tuesday.

Educators Concerns Span Many Issues

Leadership of KY120 United have stressed in interviews and social media posts that their outcry is not limited to any single bill or policy issue. In its Sunday web post, KY120 United also lays out a number of educator complaints concerning public school funding:

  • Reduced funding for childhood education
  • Inadequate funding for educator professional development
  • Inadequate funding for textbooks
  • Teacher raises devalued by the pace of insurance costs
  • Previous reduction of funding for Family Resource and Youth Service Centers
    Reduction in per pupil funding when adjusted for inflation
  • Increased taxes on retirement incomes
  • Inadequate funding for teacher mentor programs
  • Inadequate funding for extended school services, including after-school tutoring
  • Inadequate funding for School Improvement Funds
  • Reduction in student transportation funds when adjusted for inflation

Educators in Kentucky and across the country have echoed similar concerns, and at times sought to close schools to protest education policies. Teachers from Arizona to North Carolina left their classrooms last year to protest inadequate funding for support services, public school funding that has not kept up with inflation, and the expansion of school choice measures like charter schools and vouchers.

JCTA President On KY120's Demands

KY120 United's list of grievances cites specific percentages and years regarding funding reductions. Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim says some of the items as published in the post could be misleading — for example, a complaint about a prior reduction in funding for Family Resource and Youth Centers that the General Assembly fully funded last year.

In general, though, McKim says JCTA shares many of KY120 United's concerns.

"These are significant issues that make it clear that there's been an erosion of the resources and support available to public schools," he said.

McKim also criticized KY 120 United's attempt to make a unilateral threat for any future sickout without using democratic methods that the boards of teachers associations like Kentucky Education Association or JCTA take when calling public employees to job action.

In 2004, the boards of KEA and the local JCTA chapter called for a statewide strike of public employees if lawmakers did not restore cuts to health insurance benefits, which prompted a special session of the legislature. The General Assembly met the teacher associations' demands and a strike was prevented. McKim notes that the associations gave lawmakers and teachers six weeks notice of the threatened strike, and did not ask teachers to be dishonest about their use of sick leave.

"In the broad brush, they're appealing positions to take, but as in everything, the devil is in the details," McKim said.

This post has been updated.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.