Current Issues in Education: Kentucky Teachers on Strike

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah McCandless is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence in Women’s History. Her research interests include education, women in Appalachia, and the Civil War.

Though a completely incorrect assumption, I grew up thinking that there were not that many activists in the state of Kentucky. I thought for some reason that activism happened in large cities, which Kentucky is especially short on. I don’t know why I thought this, but that was what I assumed. Sometime during college I realized that activism was everywhere, it was just poorly publicized. It wasn’t until about year ago, in late 2017 and early 2018, that a protest in Kentucky gained the kind of national attention that I imagined was required for activism to really have made it to the big time. (Yes, my ideas about what activism meant were very skewed, I’m working on it.)  

Kentucky teachers went on strike. The Kentucky legislature was working to pass laws that would affect teacher pensions, both those of current and future teachers. Already one of the worst pension programs in the country, teachers were obviously infuriated. Inspired by other states’ teachers, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers went on strike en mass. Wearing all red, the teachers worked to have the pension plan not pass. When the plan was signed by the governor, Kentucky’s elected officials overthrew the plan with a veto. Kentucky teachers had in large part been a deciding factor in this political action, and it made a difference. 

Though I did not realize it at the time, Kentucky teachers (largely women) had long been advocating for themselves. The laws on state workers in Kentucky protesting are skewed toward keeping politicians in power without backlash, and so many Kentucky teachers, who are not unionized, found themselves in difficult situations with their activism. But as it turns out, Kentucky teachers have been protesting for many years with some of their most prominent protests happening in the years of 1970, 1976, and 1988, as well as the strikes in 2018. The pattern of activism had to start somewhere, and though it was likely long before 1970, when the first major protest was documented, this is where we begin our historical journey. 

On February 23, 1970, seventeen thousand teachers from 72 districts did not show up to their classes. That day, only 120 of the 193 school districts held classes, while teachers across the state protested. Because so many teachers took off, numerous schools closed. Teachers were fighting for more money and demanded a pay increase of $300. With one of the lowest salaries of any teachers in the country at an opening salary of $5,000, they were fighting with elected officials for a more substantial and economically sustainable pay. Not only was the pay not enough to survive on, but it also caused some teachers to decide to leave the state completely. Because teachers were not unionized, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) which most teachers were a part of, advocated to have more say in non-salary issues, such as sick and vacation days.  

Throughout that school year, the National Education Association, or the NEA, documented 180 teacher strikes, times when teachers stopped working, or “interruptions of service,” across the country. In the same report, it said that there had only been five state wide strikes across the country in the last ten years. Two of them were in Kentucky, one in 1966 and the other in 1970. Documentation on the 1966 strike is more sparse, but it is clear that the tradition of teacher activism goes back further than what is properly documented. There were numerous protests throughout the 1970s organized by teachers, and their most significant success was a 5% pay raise. Also during these protests, two significant decisions were made. First, these were the protests that would lead to a court battle to prohibit Kentucky teachers from striking in the future. Second, these protests led to an unsuccessful bid to allow teachers to unionize. Both of these losses would create issues for teachers down the road. 

Jumping forward to 1976, a strike by teachers in Louisville, Kentucky, the 18th largest school district in the country, led to just over 100,000 students missing school for multiple days in November. Ths strike came on the heels of a court order to desegregate and the merger of the city school district (which mostly had African American students) and the county school district (which mostly had white students). The merger seemed to put a new strain on teachers whose classes were too big and whose salaries were too small. Teachers were striking for better pay and better over time benefits, but the district was already strapped for money because the merger also took significant funding from the budget. Some 5,600 teachers demanded better pay, especially for teachers who had bachelor’s degrees. The full demand was for an additional $23 million in order to cover the raises. The Board of Education was able to instead pull together a meager $8.1 million for raises and reduced class sizes. Though very little, the teachers once again affected great change in their pay. 

On March 17th, 1988, 92 out of 178 Kentucky school districts voted to close their doors and add an extra day at the end of the year so that their teachers could attend a rally in Frankfort, Kentucky. The rally urged lawmakers to vote no on the new governor’s budget which had low teacher raises and cut successful educational programs while pushing money into new, untested programs. This protest and the reaction of the school districts, many of which had the support of their school boards, was unique in that it was one of the first times where the educational community all seemed to be on the same page regarding what needed to be done in order for education to continue to successfully work for students and teachers state wide. The newly elected governor, Wallace G. Wilkinson, had pledged major changes during his bid for the office. His view was one which mainly supported his new ideas on education and did not take into account the successful measures pushed through the legislature a mere two years earlier which were well supported and liked by the educational community. The protest took place one day before legislators were to vote. It was spurred in part by a desire for change, but also by harsh words from the governor which showed his disinterest in Kentucky teachers, their needs, and their students. A heated debate, massive support, and a petition with 47,000 signatures later, the legislature promised not to let the spending plan go through. 

An absolute powerhouse, the Kentucky Teachers Association and its members would prove to be a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, the governor at the time was going to pass a bill which would increase health insurance costs and dig too deep into the 3% raise teachers received that year. Teachers had already organized for a protest if the governor did not change his plans. Just days before teachers would surround the capital, the governor changed his plans out of fear of backlash. Governor Bevin should have thought back to this when he criticized the teachers for protesting his pension plan in 2018, because when he fought back, he was hit with a firestorm of criticism from teachers in the state and across the country, taking away even more power from his proposed plan. Kentucky apparently does have a long history of activism. With elections around the corner and teachers being one of the largest groups of any profession in the state, candidates better watch out, because those teachers? They’ll get ya. 

Bibliography

Brant, Elizabeth. “Teacher Strikes, Work Stoppages, and Interruptions of Service, 1969-1970 NEA Research Memo.” National Education Association, August 30, 1970, 1-13. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED070157.pdf.

Hoff, David J. “Kentucky Teachers Cancel Strike Plans.” Education Week. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/10/27/09caps-1.h24.html.

“Louisville Schools Are Closed by Strike by Teachers.” The New York Times. December 01, 1976. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/01/archives/louisville-schools-are-closed-by-strike-by-teachers.html.

“Thousands of Kentucky Teachers Strike on Pay.” The New York Times. February 24, 1970. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/02/24/archives/thousands-of-kentucky-teachers-strike-on-pay-they-want-300-more.html.

Walker, Reagan. “Kentucky Schools Out For Funding Protests.” Education Week. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1988/03/23/26ky.h07.html.

Write for Re/Visionist!

It’s the spring semester, and it’s time to get out your calendar again to set your second semester agenda! Re/Visionist is calling for students to get involved in the production of the Women’s History Program’s blog.

Both graduate and undergraduate students of all disciplines are encouraged to participate. As our mission statement says, the blog “aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms.” We need your voices to bring a variety of perspectives to the publication!

Please join us to share your ideas and declare your interest in Re/Visionist by attending our upcoming meeting:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

5:30PM – 6:30PM

Slonim House – Stone Room

If you have questions, please email revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu. Thanks!

The AIDS Memorial Quilt and More…

If you are a current student at SLC, you probably received an email about a part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that is on campus. You should take the time to check it out before you go on winter break. The lobby of the Performing Arts Center (part of the building closest to Westlands) exhibits it through Tuesday, December 14th.

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AIDS Ribbon on the White House

…And while I have your attention, I wanted to share some links that may be of interest.

Women and HIV/AIDS in the United States (Kaiser Family Foundation)

Grief Knows No Color: Adding Diversity to the AIDS Quilt by Rebecca Gross (NEA Arts Magazine)

Call My Name Workshop Program (The AIDS Quilt)

Mark your calendar: March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

*Photo by White House photographer Chuck Kennedy. (http://ow.ly/phIa3071Wia)

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License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode

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Write for Re/Visionist!

Are you interested in writing about women’s history? Undergraduate and graduate students are invited to attend a (second) brainstorming meeting about the SLC Women’s History Program’s blog.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

5:30PM – 6:15PM

Slonim Library Classroom

This meeting gives you an opportunity to share the topics about which you’d like to read and to indicate if you have an interest in writing for or taking on a leadership role with Re/Visionist. Funding is limited, but students will be paid for published submissions!

To help us get moving for the fall semester, please honor the deadline of noon on Monday, October 24th to submit the following to revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu:

If you are interested in writing a specific piece, please send a 100-word proposal and your CV.

If you are interested in taking on a leadership role, please send a short writing sample (less than 5 pages) and your CV.

If you attended the meeting last week, you are welcome to join us again or to simply email your content to revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu.

 

MISSION STATEMENT

RE/VISIONIST is an online publication created by students of the Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Graduate Program. In the interest of fostering dialogue, RE/VISIONIST aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms. We focus on the intersections of lived realities and histories, such as the experiences related to race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. We strive to keep the question, “Who gets to write history?” on the table.

It’s On Us – National Fall Week of Action

I came across the activities of a new student activist group, which may be of interest to the readers of Re/Visionist. It’s On Us is not the first student undertaking to combat sexual violence on campus but is part of a legacy of women’s rights activism at colleges and universities. I will cover past SLC campus advocacy and education on the topic in the near future.

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Today marks the beginning of the It’s On Us Fall Week of Action, which is happening across the country. It’s On Us began in September 2014 as a project of the White House to “help put an end to sexual assault on college campuses.” As President Barack Obama noted in a speech, about 20 percent of college student women experience sexual assault, with few getting justice.

Since then, representatives from colleges and universities across the country have been working to bring the message of It’s On Us to their campuses.

SLC junior Emma Heisler-Murray told me she got involved because sexual assault has “been a clear issue on the campus.” (Students may remember two particular Campus Safety Alerts that have been sent out by the college administration in the last few months. These alerts disclosed reports of sexual assault.)

Heisler-Murray invites the campus community to participate in events during this Fall Week of Action because “anyone can benefit from it.” Tonight, the It’s On Us campus organization has planned a screening of the film The Hunting Ground at Titsworth Lecture Hall, starting at 7:00 PM.

The major event of the week, says Heisler-Murray, is the “Still Not Asking for It” protest on Thursday. You can find the full calendar here.

For more information: you can visit the It’s On Us page on GryphonLink or by emailing Emma at emurray [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu.

Get involved! Re/Visionist 2016-17

Hello, readers!

If you’re a current student at SLC, you have gotten well into the swing of things for the 2016-2017 school year. Yet, there are still new opportunities for getting involved in campus life!

I have recently started as editor of Re/Visionist, and I am looking for other SLC students who are interested in contributing. As a contributor to the blog, you can be paid for your efforts!

We’re having a meeting next week where you can indicate your interest:

Thursday, October 13th at 5:30PM in the Slonim Library Classroom

I want to hear from you so you can share about what topics you would want to read and if you would like to contribute your skills! Both graduate and undergraduate students are welcome to attend.

Pizza will be served.

Contact me at revisionist@gm.slc.edu with any questions! See you soon!

Amanda Kozar

Student, Master’s in Women’s History Program