By Hannah McCandless
Hannah McCandless is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence in Women’s and Gender 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.
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.