Sickouts are about adults, not children

Published 11:06 am Thursday, March 28, 2019

By Jim Waters
Guest columnist

Teachers’ union bosses and their minions in the press and even the legislature have exerted a herculean effort to convince Kentuckians that it was about “the children” after teachers’ sickouts forced schools in 10 districts to close so public school employees could go and protest pension reform and parental school choice in the Capitol rotunda instead.

“We’re here for what we believe in,” argued Kamala Combs, who the Courier-Journal identified as a teacher at Maupin Elementary School in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), the state’s largest district. “We stand by our students 100 percent.”

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Well, I’m confused.

Does causing students in Kentucky’s largest school district to miss six full instructional days within a two-week period, throwing their families into chaos with less than 24 hours’ notice that caused parents to scramble to provide care for their children, represent a “stand by our students” mentality?

If the sickouts were protesting widening achievement gaps between black and white students, mounting reports of violence and failure in the JCPS district, proposed history standards that don’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr., or artificially inflated graduation rates produced with largely worthless high school diplomas, then some argument about the chaos somehow benefiting the children might hold some legitimacy.

But, that wasn’t the case.

Instead, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA), the state teachers’ union and other left-wing groups deceived school employees into believing that bullying and lawlessness in Frankfort were the only appropriate responses to proposed pension or education reforms.

Former JCPS board member Debbie Wesslund unintentionally conceded as much in an op-ed in which she attempted to scold Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis for seeking the names of teachers who called in sick and caused schools to shut down.

Wesslund revealed what was really going on, claiming “it’s time to focus on the students” and “sometimes you just have to get back to business.”

Call that Exhibit A: An acknowledgement that these chaotic episodes aren’t about the business of educating Kentucky children.

“None of these school districts should be spending any time off-task when our goal is to raise achievement for every child,” she adds.

Wesslund couldn’t be more, if unwittingly, right.

The so-called justifications for these sickouts are numerous: protesting a mild pension-reform plan that wouldn’t even affect current teachers, opposing options that give poor parents an opportunity to give their children a private-school education and gnashing political teeth against any attempt to change the commonwealth’s school-governance policy allowing staff members to hire their own bosses.

But Wesslund — despite being the self-designated chief cheerleader for JCPS (“all words should be encouraging at this time, and all the time,” she writes with emphasis regarding the district) — actually highlights the fact that school staff haven’t been focused on doing the business of educating students.

Instead, it’s all been about the adults and their agendas.

Lewis said he wasn’t going to use information he gathers to punish teachers but rather wanted to find a solution that allows teachers to both exercise their constitutional rights to protest while not shutting down schools altogether.

That’s the problem with Wesslund’s push that “it’s time to move on.”

Lewis and non-KEA-Kool-Aid-consuming Kentuckians understand that as long as there isn’t accountability and change in how these protests are populated, we risk mob rule reminiscent of past societies’ ill-fated attempts at pure democracy instead of the representative kind.

The commissioner — empowered by the law, specifically KRS 156.210, to access “records of all teachers, trustees, superintendents, or other public school officials” and to subpoena witnesses and question them under oath — must act.

Without such answerability, state law which prohibits Kentucky teachers from striking can be impudently disdained and wholly ignored, and students and their families will suffer more chaos as a consequence.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.