After years of state budgets with no money for teacher raises, the passage of a law allowing charter schools and a proposal to cut teachers’ pension benefits, Denise Gray decided she needed to do more than talk and vote.
Gray, 39, who is a para-educator working with special-needs children for Fayette County schools, did something she had never done before: She filed to run for office.
“This is a time when we need to make a difference,” said Gray, a Democrat running for state Senate in a district that includes Clark and Montgomery counties and part of Fayette. “We can’t continue to complain about a situation and not be willing to step up. I just had enough of complaining.”
Gray, of Mount Sterling, is part of an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall — 51 of them if you include active and retired educators and members of local school boards.
Most of them, 36, are Democrats hoping that the chant of thousands of demonstrators against pension legislation this year — “We’ll remember in November” — will prove more than an idle threat.
Nine of the educators are Republicans, and six are long-shot write-in candidates opposing Republicans.
“It’s a real force,” said Max Morley, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Ramsey Middle School in Louisville who is on the board of the Jefferson County Teachers Association. ”A lot of teachers and support staff at schools are fed up, and they’re just standing up and saying, ‘We’re not going to beg you to listen to our voice because that’s clearly not working. We’re going to be the voice.’ ”
House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, a Prospect Republican, said the fact that so many Democratic educators are on the ballot this year does not give the Democratic Party an edge. Osborne is confident Republicans — who hold a 63-37 majority in the Kentucky House — will retain support of public education voters and a strong majority after the elections.
“I’ve talked to a number of teachers, and they are thrilled that we finally took the initiative to fund their pensions. Yes, some are upset about the way it was done. I do not deny that,” Osborne said. “I think there are a lot of people upset by the fact that pensions were underfunded by those in control for years … mad about the fact that Democratic leadership failed to acknowledge this problem for years.”
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said there is a teacher movement.
“It’s there. It’s real,” Lasley said. “It varies a bit by location. There are a lot of counties where the schools are the primary economic engine where it’s likely to be more intense.”
But Lasley said, “While the odds are that Democrats pick up some seats, I’m not sure it translates itself to a wave by any stretch. … And if the Democrats do pick up several seats, it’ll be more an education wave that a blue wave.”
Most of the 51 educators appear to face an uphill fight: 33 of them are challenging incumbents. Five are incumbents, and 13 are running for open seats.
Roots of the teacher movement in Kentucky can be traced to a year ago this month, when Gov. Matt Bevin unveiled a proposal to address the crisis posed by massive unfunded liabilities of at least $43 billion within the state’s public retirement plans.
Top leaders of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate initially stood with Bevin on that plan, which deeply cut teachers’ benefits. But support for that plan quickly eroded — particularly among House Republicans.
The Kentucky Education Association and the JCTA organized rallies where thousands of teachers — joined by other labor groups and organizations representing state government workers and retirees — demonstrated against the pension bill.
The demonstrations made a difference — the filing of a pension bill delayed, the eventual bill’s benefit cuts were scaled back twice, and the measure eventually stalled for lack of support in the Senate where it was expected to have little difficulty.
But as the session drew to a close, leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities passed a tax bill that raised new revenue to restore public school funding for student transportation and local district health insurance that was not in the lean education budget Bevin proposed.
They also rammed through a surprise pension bill.
The pension bill made only marginal changes to benefits of current teachers and public employees. But it would also put all future teachers into a new pension plan similar to a 401(k) plan rather than the traditional pension plan with defined benefits — a change teachers strongly oppose.
Democrats and demonstrators were angry over the sudden switcheroo that saw leadership turn a sewer bill into a pension bill and zip it to passage in one day. But they were furious days later by Bevin’s comments about the ongoing teacher demonstrations during a school day.
“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody to watch them,” Bevin told reporters in remarks he later apologized for.
Kentucky’s governor says children were physically harmed, poisoned, sexually assaulted, and tried drugs due to having the day off Friday. Mandy McLaren/Courier Journal
The teacher movement showed it was for real in the May primary elections when an underfunded Rockcastle County High School teacher named Travis Brenda campaigned as a strong public education advocate and beat House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell – a rising star in the Republican party – in the primary for state representative in the 71st District.
“I don’t know all the local dynamics in that race. But all things being equal, Jonathan doesn’t lose without the teacher issue,” Lasley said. “It wasn’t the sole cause, and probably not a fair cause, but I think it was substantial.”
Gray, the educator from Mount Sterling, said her objection to the new pension bill is that it replaces secure traditional pensions for future teachers and gives them a plan similar to a 401(k) — a move she said is bound to hurt public education because she said it will make it harder for schools to recruit and retain talented young people.
But she and many others say it was the rapid process used to pass the bill in one day, and Bevin’s comments that galvanized the movement.
“Public education hasn’t been funded the way it should be for years. I think one big change now is the rhetoric,” Morley said. “”It’s one thing to fund education at a low level but still respect teachers. … It’s another thing entirely to do that and then insult teachers. … I would tell the governor, ‘Keep talking, buddy.’ ”
Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said: “By seeming kind of mean-spirited and combative, Bevin’s encouraging those voters to think of this as a clash of sort of petty political factions rather than in terms of their pocketbooks – What do these pensions mean? What are the solutions? Who’s solving them? He distracted from the policy detail.”
Osborne said it is the Republicans — in firm control of both chambers of the legislature and the governorship the past two years — who have tackled the issues. And he noted that throughout the uproarious past year, voter registration trends strongly favored the GOP.
Secretary of State registration records show the Republicans gained 40,531 voters between September 2017 and September 2018, while the Democrats saw an increase of 2,600.
“Voters see that the economy in Kentucky has exploded,” Osborne said. “In no two-year period in the history of Kentucky have we created more jobs. In no two-year period have we seen greater investment in Kentucky.”
Osborne said he does not believe Bevin’s comments will be a factor.
“Gov. Bevin is not on the ballot this year,” Osborne said. “… Do I think some voters are upset at some of the things that people who are not on the ballot have said? Yes, I’m sure that they are. But at the end of the day, this is going to be about individuals versus individuals who are on the ballot, and voters will see the policies we’ve put forth have helped secure their pensions and generated excitement and enthusiasm in this economy.”
But JCTA President Brent McKim said, “I think teachers are still pretty worked up and will be a significant factor. And not only because there are so many of them running, but also because they are more focused on engaging as voters than in the past because of what happened during the legislative session with the pension issue, among other things.”
Written by Tom Loftus. Cross-posted with permission
from the Courier-Journal via the Kentucky Press News Service.