Teachers say rebuilding trust with lawmakers will take time

Teachers gather in the Capitol for the sixth sickout protest of 2019. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

By Wednesday night, one thing was clear: Two controversial education bills were dead.

Education and political reporters said it. Legislative leaders said it. A bipartisan group of Louisville lawmakers said it.

Roughly one-third of Jefferson County’s teachers repeatedly called in sick en masse to protest legislation to restructure the teachers’ pension board and to create scholarship tax credits. After five sickouts in two weeks, those two bills — House Bill 525 and House Bill 205 — appeared to be dead.

And even if the bills weren’t dead, it was unlikely they would get through both sides of the legislature and to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk in the session’s two remaining days.

So why did nearly 2,000 teachers call out Wednesday night, forcing Kentucky’s largest district to again shut its doors?

In short: Trust is dead, too.

Teachers worried, despite lawmakers’ word, that the contested bills would be shoved into an unrelated bill and forced through late in the session.

Last year, lawmakers gutted a wastewater bill and turned it into pension reform legislation that passed on the session’s final day before the veto period. Teachers said the now-infamous “sewer bill” destroyed their trust in their lawmakers, and now teachers are worried about a potential “sewer bill 2.0.”

Through a Wednesday night statement, four Louisville lawmakers — Rep. Jason Nemes, R-33; Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-44; Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-36; and Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-19 — sought to rebuild some of that trust. HB 525 and 205, they wrote, would not be passed in any way, shape or form this session.

That assurance assuaged some teachers, who urged a return to school. However, other teachers pushed colleagues to not let up, questioning why they would trust lawmakers again.

McGarvey tweeted a response to doubters: “When private assurances become public declarations I think you can trust them.”

Some educators and public education advocates said that repairing the broken trust with lawmakers will take more than one legislative session or election.

JCPS teacher Sarah Dickinson said she was ready to be back with her first-graders Thursday, but understands the continuing distrust.

“Teachers now are very much in a ‘fool me once, you will never fool me again’ mindset … with good reason,” she said.

It’ll take more than voting out lawmakers who are “trying to profit from the failure of public schools,” Dickinson said. Rebuilding trust will require multiple sessions of legislators working with stakeholders, voting for their constituents’ best interest and more bipartisan efforts to better public schools, she said.

Tiffany Dunn, a JCPS teacher and co-founder of Save Our Schools KY, said lawmakers and Gov. Matt Bevin will have to “stand down on the anti-public school rhetoric.”

Over the past year, Bevin has routinely criticized sickouts and the “thug mentality” of the state’s public teachers. He also blamed teachers for students being sexually assaulted or exposed to drugs after a massive protest last April. The comments drew swift rebukes from state lawmakers and teacher groups, and Bevin eventually apologized.

Teachers said such comments wear on their support of the system. JCPS parent Rob Mattheu lined up a 14-point Twitter thread outlining teachers’ frustrations that extend past a few dead bills.

The first point: The sewer bill. The second: “Continual attacks on public schools and teachers.”

“I’m not sure that it’s possible to restore trust in the short term,” he told Insider.

But legislators can begin with a “public and visible effort” to understand issues affecting public schools, especially social determinants such as poverty and racism, he said. When lawmakers do not understand issues that a large, urban district such as JCPS faces, it can strengthen the misconception that Kentucky’s largest district is a “disaster,” he added.

A greater need for transparency and communication extends to handling bills, Mattheu said. Better rules for what can be added to bills and when, plus more stakeholder involvement once a bill is introduced, could help.

“But it is clear from this session and last that there is little respect for public educators and little desire to be transparent with what is done in Frankfort that can negatively impact our public schools,” Mattheu said.

March 28 is the final day of the 2019 legislative session.