By Wayne D. Lewis Jr., Ph. D.

Wayne Lewis

On March 14, in accordance with the authority granted to the Kentucky commissioner of education by a state law that dates back decades, I sent an email to 10 school district superintendents requesting records and documents. The 10 districts identified had experienced at least one day of a work stoppage since Feb. 28; the result of more teachers calling in sick than the districts were capable of covering. Most of those 10 districts had experienced only one day of work stoppage. Bullitt County had experienced three days, and Jefferson County had experienced a staggering six days within a two-week time span.

My request has been met with criticism and outrage from some educators who participated in the protests at the capitol. Many of whom feel like my request is a violation of their First Amendment rights. This is absolutely not true. I have continuously affirmed teachers’ rights to be at the Kentucky State Capitol to sit, march, protest, engage, testify and make their opinions known in any other peaceful manner.

Teachers have the same rights as any other citizen to engage in the political process, and I applaud teachers and all Kentuckians who choose to engage in education advocacy. Teachers do not, however, have the right to call in sick when they are not sick in order to force a work stoppage in Kentucky school districts.

During the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to and engage with lots of visiting teachers, principals and superintendents who were in Frankfort to make their voices heard. Most of those conversations have resulted in teachers learning that there is little upon which we disagree. My top priority is the same as theirs – to ensure that all Kentucky children have access to a high-quality public education that puts them on their best path toward success as adults.

I believe, however, that the work stoppages have impeded students’ academic learning. Kentucky students cannot afford to lose instructional days. Students in Jefferson County – where 36 percent of economically disadvantaged elementary school students score at the Novice level on state reading assessments – especially cannot afford to lose six instructional days. Forty-three percent of African-American elementary school students in Jefferson County score at the Novice level – the lowest of four performance levels – in reading. Scoring at the Novice performance level means students demonstrate a minimal understanding of academic content at their grade level.

Students cannot afford to miss one instructional day in Jefferson County, much less six within two weeks.

I requested these documents in accordance with the responsibility of my position. It is my sole intent to determine whether the laws of the state have been upheld in areas including, but not limited to, work stoppages and public school employee leave. My goal in starting this dialogue is that districts and teachers will work to come to agreement on how they will prevent such stoppages in the future.

I did not make this request lightly and did so only after requests of other groups for teachers to return to the classroom failed. Before I requested a single document, JCPS had negotiated an agreement with the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) that would permit hundreds of teachers a day from the district to protest in Frankfort while schools remained open. I supported that agreement.

When that agreement failed and 11th-grade students in Jefferson County had missed their ACT exam, the Kentucky Education Association and the JCTA cautioned teachers that calling in sick when you are not sick has legal risks. Finally, a bipartisan group of legislators from Jefferson County assured teachers that bills they were concerned about had no chance of passage and pleaded with teachers to not call in sick again so that students could return to school. That move failed as well, and schools in Jefferson County were closed for the sixth day. Six days was enough.

The legal authority for the commissioner of education to make such requests is indisputable. KRS 156.010 and KRS 156.210 clearly state that the commissioner has access to the records of all teachers or any other public school officials, and has the authority to report mismanagement, violation of law or misconduct to the Kentucky Board of Education.

If students are our top priority, every school district in Kentucky must protect its students’ school days and instructional time. Let’s talk about how we accomplish that while we also work together on the many other issues we have to address with public education in Kentucky.

Wayne D. Lewis Jr. is the commissioner of education for Kentucky.

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