Teachers to protest at Kentucky Derby, a symbol of state's inequality

Teaching unions say Republican governor Matt Bevin is punishing them for striking by taking over state’s largest school system

Teachers’ union activists in a state that saw a dramatic strike last month plan to protest at the running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

After last month’s Kentucky teachers’ strike, the state Republican majority chose to take control of the heavily black Jefferson county public school system, based in the Louisville area. Governor Matt Bevin said it was because of concerns about finances. Union leaders say Bevin is punishing teachers for striking.

“That sure looks like pure retribution to us,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García. “Here you have Kentucky lawmakers angry that those upstart teachers demanded that something better is done for school funding and their students.”

To many activists, the Kentucky Derby and its crowd of dignitaries, including Bevin, represent everything wrong with what some consider still a racially divided, Jim Crow state.

“Kentucky does an extremely poor job of grappling with its history of racism. Symbols like the Kentucky Derby matter,” said Attica Scott, the only black woman in the Kentucky statehouse. For years a union organizer, Scott has helped previous protests at the Derby, for the rights of immigrant workers.

At the 170,000-seat, 147-acre Churchill Downs complex, some seats cost as much as $6,000. But the course sits in a relatively poor Latino neighborhood, known as the Backside, where residents have frequently protested. Immigrants train horses for millionaires; hundreds of horse stable workers earn as a little as $400 a week and a place to sleep.

This year’s protest will see teachers target Bevin. He has supported a “neighborhood schools” bill, which would largely defund bussing programs and emphasise schools that draw students from nearby neighborhoods instead of the whole area. Critics say this is re-segregation by stealth.

With control over Jefferson county schools firmly in the hands of a panel of state education commissioners appointed by the governor, activists say Bevin will likely get his opportunity to smash a school busing program that has won national praise.

“The governor has had it for Louisville since he was elected because we did not vote for him,” said Scott. “His ego has gotten the best of him. He has had it out for Louisville, and part of the way in which you attack Louisville is through its school system, which educates 101,000 students and is most diverse body of students [in the state]. That diversity scares and threatens the governor because that’s not something he’s comfortable with and respects or values.”

Activists also worry that the Republican administration could threaten Jefferson county’s sanctuary schools program, which allows migrant children to attend regardless of the state of their documentation. Bevin claims he is taking over the school system because of financial mismanagement he blames on the locally elected school board’s relationship with teachers’ unions.

“This is political,” Bevin told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “And it’s about power. And it’s about money. And it’s about union dues. And it’s about who gets to elect – and if people don’t think the teachers’ union has elected the school board in Jefferson county they haven’t been paying attention.”

Activists say that if Bevin was serious about helping fund Louisville schools, he would start by eliminating tax breaks for horse racing and bourbon industries. Both are major political players in Kentucky: horse racing and associated business brings in more than $4bn a year while bourbon brings in more than $8.5bn.

The precise value of tax breaks to bourbon and horses is unclear, but an analysis provided by Scott’s office showed that it deprives the state of tens of millions of dollars a year.

“It’s a shame,” said teachers’ union activist Erin Vachon. “The Churchill Downs is a corporation, the bourbon industry is full of corporations, and they have an obligation to make wealth trickle down. We haven’t seen that.”

The Jefferson county school board and the union intend to fight the governor’s takeover in court. If they don’t win there, Scott feels optimistic support for teachers and their unions will win back the state legislature in November.

“We’ve got a historic number of women running for office, and a historic number of people of color running,” she said. “Intersectional organizing is powerful and this election is going to be a referendum on the attacks on education by the governor and his Republican supermajority.”

  • This piece was amended on 5 May 2018. Due to a transcription error, it misidentified a source. The correct name, Erin Vachon, has been included.


Mike Elk

The GuardianTramp

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