As Protests Spread, Lawmakers Seek Punishment (and Protection) for Teachers

North and South Carolina teachers rallied this week. Educators in Sacramento, Calif., and Oregon could strike later this month.
by | May 2, 2019 AT 12:15 PM
(AP/Amanda Morris)

SPEED READ:

  • Protesting teachers in South Carolina this week demanded more free-speech rights.  
  • Lawmakers across the country have proposed bills to punish teachers who strike.
  • Teachers in Sacramento, Calif., and Oregon could strike later in the month.
 

Do teachers need more free-speech protections? That's the case made this week by educators protesting in South Carolina.

Thousands of South Carolina teachers rallied outside their state capitol Wednesday, demanding pay raises, more planning time, increased school funding -- and, in a twist, more legal protections for their freedom of speech.

SC for Ed, the grassroots activist group that organized Wednesday’s demonstration, told CNN that many teachers fear protesting or speaking up about education issues, worrying they’ll face retaliation at work. Saani Perry, a teacher in Fort Mill, S.C., told CNN that people in his profession are “expected to sit in the classroom and stay quiet and not speak [their] mind.”

To address these concerns, SC for Ed is lobbying for the Teachers’ Freedom of Speech Act, which was introduced earlier this year in the state House of Representatives. The bill would specify that "a public school district may not willfully transfer, terminate or fail to renew the contract of a teacher because the teacher has publicly or privately supported a public policy decision of any kind." If that happens, teachers would be able to sue for three times their salary.

Teachers across the country are raising similar concerns about retaliation. Such fears aren't unfounded: Lawmakers in some states that saw strikes last year have introduced bills this year that would punish educators for skipping school to protest.

In West Virginia, where striking teachers initiated a national wave of rallies last year, lawmakers considered a bill that would have withheld teachers' pay each day their protests closed schools. Teachers went back on strike to protest the bill, which was quickly abandoned. In Arizona, which also saw widespread teacher protests last year, legislators took up several protest punishment bills, including one that would have fined teachers $5,000 for school closures that they caused. In Oklahoma, lawmakers proposed making it illegal for teachers to protest (striking already is illegal) and revoking their certifications if they do.

"These cynical bills were written with one goal in mind: to retaliate against educators and the communities who stood up for public education during the walkouts," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told CNN in February.

Supporters of the bills say their intent is to keep kids in school and to keep classes running.

Most of the measures on either side of the debate -- to protect teachers' free speech or limit it -- aren't going anywhere fast. They're either stuck in commitee or have already died there as legislative sessions have ended.

In Kentucky, teacher protests have divided the governor and the attorney general. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has subpoened school districts for the names of teachers who walked out earlier this year. In response, Democratic AG Andy Beshear sued to stop the governor's investigation earlier this week.

Teachers and their unions are likely to remain in the national spotlight throughout this month. The Sacramento City Teachers Association is scheduled to hold a one-day strike -- its second of the year -- on May 22. And teachers in Oregon may walk off the job next Wednesday.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer