FRANKFORT, Ky. -- At least four Kentucky school districts were forced to close Thursday as hundreds of teachers called in sick to continue protesting what they believe to be anti-public education proposals in the state legislature.
It was the third time in the past week some districts were forced to cancel classes because of too many teacher absences. And it was the second closure in a row for Jefferson County Public Schools, the state's largest district and one of the biggest in the country with more than 98,000 students.
Thursday's action comes one year after teacher uprisings in at least five states, part of a movement advocating for better pay, more education funding and protections for traditional pension benefits. This year, teachers have gone on strike in Los Angeles and Oakland, California. And in West Virginia, an upcoming special legislative session on education has teachers worried.
"Teachers are severely concerned that if they don't stand up and come out of their classrooms for a moment, even today, to have their voice heard, then we're not going to be able to effectively do our jobs," said John Calhoun, a 32-year-old teacher at Hebron Middle School in Bullitt County. "Teachers feel last year was reactive. Last year legation was passed and then we stood up. We want to be on the forefront."
In Kentucky, teachers don't strike but they coordinate to all use their sick days on the same day, forcing districts to close because they don't have enough substitutes to cover classes. Hundreds of teachers wearing red shirts clogged the stairs leading to the House chamber, chanting so loudly they disrupted hearings before the state Supreme Court.
"Usually in the fall it's leaf blowers, today it's people petitioning their government," Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. told lawyers at the beginning of one case.
Statewide teacher groups, including the Kentucky Education Association and KY 120 United, had urged teachers to go to work Thursday. Some districts, including the state's second largest system in Fayette County, sent delegations of teachers to Frankfort to keep the schools open.
But the call for a "sick out" in some districts spread quickly on social media, forcing administrators to close schools.
Teachers have many concerns, but the biggest one appeared to be House bill 205, which would grant tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for special needs children and those in foster care or low- to middle-income homes to attend private schools. An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found it would cost the state $209 million in tax revenue by 2025 — money teachers say should be spent on public education.
That bill has not made it out of committee yet. But teachers fear it could be attached to another tax bill that GOP lawmakers are negotiating behind the scenes. Thursday, House Republican Speaker David Osborne indicated that was unlikely.
"I don't think there's a lot of sentiment for it," said Osborne, who represents Oldham County where schools were closed on Thursday. "I think it's disappointing the kids continue to miss learning opportunities."
But another bill teachers oppose is still alive. House bill 525 would strip the Kentucky Education Association, which mostly represents teachers, from controlling the nominations of most board members at the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. Instead, the bill would let other groups nominate members, including associations representing superintendents and school boards.
After adjourning Thursday, lawmakers have just four legislative days left to pass bills this year. The legislature is scheduled to meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week.
Last year, the state legislature approved public spending of $4,000 a student, the highest dollar amount ever spent on public education in Kentucky. But a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, adjusting for inflation, Kentucky is paying 13 percent less per student since 2009.
Among the five states that had widespread teacher protests last year, Kentucky was the only state to have a decrease in inflation-adjusted spending, according to the report.
Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said "in some ways" that is a valid argument. But the noted lawmakers put an extra $2 billion into the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, the first time in a decade that lawmakers had paid the full amount required to keep the system solvent.
"That's part of funding education," Stivers said.
Calhoun, the middle school teacher in Bullitt County, said that type of thinking "creates a further schism" between educators and lawmakers.
"Sending the message that it's either going to be your pensions or your classroom is the wrong message to send," he said.