Kentucky finds 1,000 teachers violated law during ‘sickouts’
FRANKFORT, Ky. — An election-year investigation into teacher rallies at Kentucky’s Capitol found more than 1,000 educators violated state law by participating in protests that shut down some schools, Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration said Friday.
No penalties will be assessed, Kentucky’s labor secretary said, but he warned “the grace extended in this instance” won’t be applied if future work stoppages occur.
“Those teachers who participated in this concerted effort were in clear violation of the law,” Labor Secretary David Dickerson said in a statement from the agency.
The agency could have assessed civil penalties up to $1,000 per person for each day away from work.
The Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of educators, said the warning of future punishment amounted to a “scare tactic” to try to intimidate teachers and their allies from “having their voices heard.”
This year’s protests over several education bills in Kentucky were part of a wave of teacher activism that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Oklahoma and Arizona. The Kentucky measures included a proposal to change who manages the teachers’ pension fund as well as legislation that would have indirectly supported private schools with tax credits for scholarship funds.
Bevin, a Republican who has feuded with some public education groups, criticized the widespread absences in several school districts that forced some schools to close while teachers converged on Kentucky’s statehouse.
Kentucky officials sent subpoenas to several school districts seeking the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend the rallies. In several districts, so many teachers used their sick days that officials could not find enough substitutes to cover classes.
The Labor Cabinet’s investigation of the teacher sickouts has been wrapped up amid election-year politics. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat who is challenging Bevin in what’s shaping up as a close November election, tried to block the subpoenas.
Beshear said Friday that Bevin’s administration “backed down” from any attempt to punish the protesting teachers.
“This is a clear win for the thousands of teachers that this governor tried to bully,” he said in a statement. “While the governor’s press release attempts to threaten future punishment of teachers, we’ve stopped him before.”
Dickerson said his agency completed its investigation into teacher sickouts. The review found that 1,074 teachers violated Kentucky law, which prohibits work stoppages by public-sector employees, he said.
“Kentucky law clearly prohibits public-sector employees from engaging in work stoppages that many teachers engaged in during the early months of 2019,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson said the investigation was necessary to ensure that similar work stoppages don’t shut down public schools in the future. Kentucky lawmakers will write a new two-year state budget in 2020, and efforts to make more changes to one of the country’s worst-funded public pension systems loom as another potentially divisive issue. Teachers have seen their rallies as powerful leverage in trying to block bills they opposed in the Republican-dominated legislature.
“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future … violations,” Dickerson said. “The public cannot tolerate another illegal work stoppage in our schools.
KY 120 United, a public education advocacy group, fired back at what it viewed as a threat from Bevin’s administration.
“School is just barely back in session and already Kentucky teachers have received their first threat from one of Bevin’s heavies at the Labor Cabinet,” it said.