Hundreds of Kentucky schools closed because teachers called out sick in protest of GOP pension bill

The schools don’t have enough substitutes to cover the absences, which affect 140,000 students in the two largest districts alone.
At least six Kentucky school districts, including the two largest, cancelled classes Thursday after teachers staged a “sick out.”

Hundreds of schools in Kentucky cancelled classes Thursday after teachers staged a “sick out” to protest a bill they say would damage their pension plans.

The six districts that closed down don’t have enough substitutes to cover the absences, which affect 140,000 students in the two largest districts alone. Public school teachers and administrators showed up Thursday to protest as Kentucky lawmakers discussed the bill, which would strip union leaders of some nominating power on the 11-person board that oversees pensions and effectively eliminate their majority hold.


In Kentucky, public employees are not legally allowed to go on strike, but teachers have staged sick outs in the past as an alternative form of organized protest. The Republican sponsoring the bill, Rep. Ken Upchurch, expressed outrage as he likened the sick out to a teachers strike.

"It is staggering that people would strike so early in the process and more astonishing that the organization that says they represent teachers’ best interests has called for it," he told the Louisville Courier Journal.

Upchurch did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

KY 120 United, a group that formed during last year’s teacher protests and called for Thursday’s sick out, said in a statement on its Facebook page that the action was about more than one piece of legislation.

"We show up every day in the classroom with a lot of passion. But, sadly, passion will not substitute for our pension or our paycheck," the statement read. "It has been crystal-clear for over a year that public education, teachers, and our public pensions are under attack. Enough is enough. This isn’t about just one bill but a series of events that have transpired over the past year."

Last April, Kentucky educators caused school cancellations by calling out sick to protest legislation that started as an 11-page sewage bill and ultimately became a 291-page pension overhaul. Teachers said the bill would take more of their paychecks for pension benefits and cut out new teachers from the plans that teachers have relied on for decades. After Republican lawmakers passed the bill, Kentucky’s Supreme Court threw it out as unconstitutional.

The protests in Kentucky are part of a wave of actions by teacher unions in the United States, which saw a historic resurgence in 2018 — the first time the number of labor strikes increased in three decades. Although the number of labor strikes remains low (about 20 in 2018), it's the highest number of workers participating in almost a generation.

Teachers throughout the U.S. have also already gone on strike in 2019. Right now in Oakland, California, teachers are striking for better wages, benefits, and resources for students. Earlier this month, teachers in West Virginia went on strike to kill a bill that would have introduced charter schools — publicly funded but privately operated schools — into the state.

Cover image: In this April 13, 2018, file photo, teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol to rally for increased funding for education in Frankfort, Ky. The Kentucky Supreme Court has struck down a pension law that prompted thousands of teachers to protest at the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File)