On the evening of April 2, Kentucky lawmakers relented to pressure from thousands of public school teachers who walked off the job to storm their state capitol in Frankfort. The protest followed a widespread teacher “sick out” last week after a Senate committee amended a sewage bill to undercut teacher pensions without warning. While the new budget bill addresses many of the teachers’ demands, they are concerned by its funding source: a tax reform package they say favors corporations over working people. The budget bill now heads to Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, who has criticized it.
As the teachers mull their next steps, The Progressive spoke with Tammy Berlin, an English teacher at Atherton High School in Louisville and vice president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the largest local in the state.
Q: Why did teachers flock to the capitol?
Tammy Berlin: We need money for schools. We need money for support services for kids and their families. We need wraparound services for kids who are in high need. We need pre-K. All of that needs to happen. And our legislature has not been interested in creating any kind of new revenue in more than a decade.
Q: What change did the protesting teachers affect?
Berlin: The budget that passed last night includes just about everything we were asking for. It contains significant increases in per pupil funding, restores funding to family resource centers and transportation, restores some cuts to postsecondary education. Unfortunately, in order to fund this budget, the legislature passed a tax reform package that will have a significantly negative impact on Kentucky’s poor and the middle class. Our teachers are opposed to any revenue bill that creates regressive taxes on the poor and middle class.
We did support our teachers who wanted to exercise their right to use a sick day because they were sick and tired and frankly ill over what the legislature had done to them the night before.
Q: What is your local union, Jefferson County Teachers’ Association, telling teachers when it comes to walking off the job?
Berlin: Kentucky is one of those states where public employees do not have the right to strike. We had a “sick out” on Friday across the state. We didn’t call for that, but we did support our teachers who wanted to exercise their right to use a sick day because they were sick and tired and frankly ill over what the legislature had done to them the night before.
Q: Are Kentucky teachers inspired by what happened in West Virginia and the wave of teacher actions across the country?
Berlin: Absolutely. We have been inspired by [the West Virginia teachers], we stand behind them 100 percent in solidarity and we know they stand behind us as well. People are empowering themselves to take control of the situation and make democracy work for them. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this level of engagement in members.
Q: What’s next?
Berlin: The legislature is in recess during the veto period, and will return to potentially override any vetoes on April 13. The session will close on April 14. In the meantime, approximately 500 teachers from all 120 counties across the state will come together in Louisville for our state association’s annual business meeting. Any next steps on budget actions will be determined at that meeting. Stay tuned.
Alexandra Tempus is associate editor of The Progressive.