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This story has been updated.
It’s becoming a familiar scene: Jefferson County teachers calling in sick en masse, requiring Kentucky’s largest district to close.
Instead of heading to classrooms — which many of them say they’d rather do — they head to Frankfort to protest a collection of education bills they consider an attack on their profession and pension.
Tuesday, March 12, was the fourth sickout in less than two weeks for JCPS, as its teachers bucked an agreement between their union and JCPS to avoid future closures. One-third of JCPS’ over 6,000 teachers called in sick, according to the district.
Some of those teachers arrived in Frankfort before 9 a.m., wrapping around the upper level of the Capitol to wait for a House gallery pass — a coveted item often causing lengthy lines. When the House convened three hours later, dozens of educators and students formed at the base of the House stairs, again chanting and clutching signs.
— Olivia Krauth (@oliviakrauth) March 12, 2019
Educators are mainly watching three bills — one passed, one potentially up for a House vote and another likely dead. Here’s a status update on the key bills behind the sickouts:
Senate Bill 250
A bill meant to give the JCPS superintendent — the boss of many of the protestors — more hiring and spending authority passed the House, 54-42, on its last step before heading to Gov. Bevin.
While intended to reduce barriers on JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to turnaround the district, some are concerned it gives him — and his successors — more power than necessary. Some lawmakers feared the bill could be expanded to all districts
The bill would also move final principal selection power from school-based decision-making councils to Pollio, which some critics say diminishes the council’s voice in their school. A floor amendment from Louisville Rep. Jeff Donohue to remove changes impacting principal selection entirely failed.
“(JCPS) would have been taken over…if it weren’t for Marty Pollio,” Rep. Jerry Miller, who covers part of Jefferson County, said in favor of the move.
Multiple Louisville Democrats used their floor time to support teachers, some of whom watched from the House gallery. Declarations against the bill were met with silent jazz hands from the gallery and screams from outside the chambers.
Former JCPS board member Lisa Willner, now a state representative, voted against the bill. “I have fundamental issues about this just not working as a model in public education,” she said.
“Let’s get out of the way,” Willner said. “For Pete’s sakes, let’s let the teachers do their work.”
House Bill 205
Likely the most-watched bill by teachers this session, legislation that would give tax breaks to those who donate to private school scholarships for special-needs and low-income students appears to be dead.
HB 205 stalled without a committee vote last week after a sudden resurrection of the bill at the end of February. The backlash was quick and severe, with every superintendent in Kentucky opposing the bill. If passed, it would pull both state revenue from the general fund and per-pupil dollars from districts, without districts’ fixed costs dropping, they said.
Without a committee vote, HB 205 could not move forward as a standalone bill. EdChoice KY, a key supporter of the school choice legislation, said in a statement Tuesday the bill was essentially dead.
“The legislation would level the playing field by allowing private entities to fund financial aid for vulnerable Kentucky students to attend the school that is best for their individual needs,” said Charles Leis, EdChoice KY’s president. “The failure to advance HB 205 means that lower-income families will remain disadvantaged in getting their children into the school that is best for them.”
Still, some educators worry the bill’s language could be tacked onto an unrelated bill in the waning days of the session. One bill supporter has repeatedly denied those claims to Insider Louisville over the past week.
House Bill 525
A bill that would reorganize the teachers’ pension board sparked the session’s first sickout on Feb. 28, but it has remained on the House’s orders of the day since.
HB 525 was not called for a vote Tuesday afternoon but may be called later this week. If it passes, it will need to go through a Senate committee and the full Senate before heading to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk. Three days remain in the session for lawmakers to pass legislation.
Looks like there are three potential routes for #HB525:
—maintain committee sub with new 13-member TRS board
—have the pension oversight board review the current TRS makeup
—be gutted completely and require gubernatorial candidates to release their federal tax returns https://t.co/8s2GJAjQBJ
— Olivia Krauth (@oliviakrauth) March 12, 2019
It could also change significantly, depending on how lawmakers vote on a series of floor amendments on the bill. It could remain as presented in committee — simply having the pension oversight board review the board’s makeup for future decisions — or it could be completely changed and require gubernatorial candidates to release their federal tax returns.