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Kentucky Teachers Walk Out

They become the latest educators to stage a statewide protest, in response to an attack on public education from Republican Governor Matt Bevin.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

On Thursday, Kentucky Republicans passed S.B. 151, a Frankenstein bill. Originally sewage legislation, it became a hybrid pension bill that affected many state employees. The pension bill had itself known several lives; each iteration sparked large protests by current and retired teachers. Despite the outcry, or maybe because of it, Republicans revived it from apparent death and passed it just in time to give Republican Governor Matt Bevin a major legislative victory before the close of this year’s general session. In response, Kentucky teachers walked out of schoolrooms on Monday and hundreds are expected to stage a protest in Frankfort, the state capital.

In a statement, the Kentucky Education Association called S.B. 151 “a classic legislative bait and switch.” One teacher had a blunter reaction. “The only words I have for this are curse words. I’m past the point of being reasonable. It’s absolutely corrupt government,” fumed Jason Griffith, a public high school teacher in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Griffiths is reacting to months of provocation: Bevin has proposed several significant changes to the state’s pension systems for public employees—changes that will weaken benefits for new hires. His critics attribute the reductions to Bevin’s small-government, free-market ideology, and see the pension proposals as part of a broader attack on public education in the state.

They are right to be worried. Bevin tried and failed to call a special session last year to pass his most draconian ideas. Kentucky Public Radio reported in January that one proposed budget cut would have ended $145.5 million in state funding for the health insurance of retired teachers. GOP legislators rejected some of Bevin’s strictest measures, but their own version of pension reform would’ve reduced cost of living adjustments for teacher pensions. Pensions are an especially fraught issue in Kentucky because under a unique arrangement, the state’s public school teachers aren’t eligible to receive Social Security benefits. The state pension is their only means of government support until they’re old enough to receive Medicare.

Bevin’s proposed budget, meanwhile, contains severe cuts to public education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the Fayette County school district alone could lose $18.4 million in funds, a sum equivalent to the salaries of 304 teachers. The state’s public universities face a budget cut of 6.25 percent under the current proposal.

Bevin has responded to criticism by going on offense. Teachers have a “thug mentality,” he said; they were also “selfish and short-sighted” for protesting his proposed reforms. “It’s about just straight up wanting more than your fair share,” Bevin said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Still, before Thursday it looked like the teachers had successfully cowed Republican legislators. The bill’s revival was so sudden that Republicans did not include any actuarial analysis. Most legislators hadn’t even read the bill. By Friday morning, it was clear that, while S.B. 151 avoided some of the flaws that plagued its predecessors, it would not preclude further protests in the state.

“Each version has gotten less horrible because there’s so much pushback, but it’s still a bad bill,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. S.B. 151 doesn’t cut cost of living adjustments for retirees, unlike its predecessors. But it does end the current defined benefit plan for teachers hired after January 1, 2019, and moves them into a hybrid cash balance plan that pins benefits to market returns. According to Bailey’s analysis, that hybrid plan guarantees lower rates of return for teachers, and therefore reduces their lifetime earnings. Teachers also will no longer be able to put accumulated sick days toward retirement.

It also cuts a death benefit given to some state workers, if they were hired after 2014. “For many of our retirees, this was the only form of ‘life insurance’ they have to pay for a funeral, leave to their family,” Suzanne Bernert, a retired member of the state’s emergency medical services, told me in an email. Retired public workers like Bernert rely on a different pension system than teachers, but they face similar issues: The average Kentucky Retirement Systems pension, she asserted, is $21,000 per year, before medical insurance is taken out. “That insurance fund we all gave 1 percent of our salary to and the state employees and non-Medicare retirees pay premiums to?” she wrote. “The cheapest single plan is over $700 per month.”

And workers like her need that health insurance. “While I loved my job, I also gave up many hours of forced overtime from my family, was assaulted by patients many times, exposed to all kinds of illnesses, had several on the job injuries, including a broken coccyx and a major back surgery, and I have a lifetime of pain and job-related tinnitus to look forward to,” she said. “We fought for years to get EMS into hazardous duty retirement. I am now told by the governor and legislature I am ‘greedy’ to want the pension I paid into without fail every payday.”

While Kentucky is home to some wealthy urban and suburban enclaves, swaths of the state remain desperately poor. Those communities may soon find themselves in even graver circumstances, since S.B. 151 shifts about one-third of the new plan’s costs from the state to local school districts. Wealthier districts could bear those costs with a grimace, but Kentucky’s coal counties are among the poorest in the Appalachian region. They simply don’t have the tax base to withstand the impact. At least one of those counties—Martin County—also faces an ongoing shortage of clean water. “I don’t know that some of those school districts can make it,” Bailey said, citing the combined impact of S.B. 151 and the budget’s proposed education cuts. “It’s just going to make it harder to attract teachers and retain them.”

Current teachers are largely exempt from the bill’s worst measures, which looks like a political calculation on the part of state Republicans to divide older and younger teachers. But that ploy has so far backfired. In conversations with me, teachers expressed a sense of generational solidarity. Their concerns are for the future of their profession and for the future of the communities they serve.

“I think a lot of people have the attitude of well, you’re a current teacher, you’ve got you what you’ve got. It’s not so bad for you, so why do you care?” explained Paula Setser-Kissick, a Fayette County technology resource teacher currently running for the Kentucky senate. “We care because we don’t want our new teachers put in that position.” And the connection can be more personal than Republicans may have realized. “Someone on Facebook pointed out that these new teachers are our former students. Of course we care what happens to them!” she exclaimed.

Deborah Evans, a retired band director, told me she’s made the three-hour trek from her home in Pike County to Frankfort to protest pension reforms every week. Before she retired from full-time teaching, she worked a second job as a church choir director so she could receive some Social Security. “It’s gotten harder to raise a family on a teacher’s income. It’s very hard,” she said.

“Legislators may not keep their promise, but teachers will,” she told me. “Come November, there will be some changes.” On Monday, she’ll be in Frankfort to rally again.

Workers are now considering their next moves. Language hidden on page 149 of the bill says that the General Assembly “reserves the right to amend, suspend, or reduce the benefits and rights”  provided to educators and other state workers hired after January 1, 2019. That may violate the state’s inviolable contract with educators, and the provision has already become grounds for legal action: The state’s Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear announced on Friday that he’ll file a lawsuit to block the bill if Bevin signs it into law. The Kentucky Education Association, meanwhile, will hold a statewide rally in Frankfort on Monday to coincide with debate on the governor’s controversial budget.

“Anyone who voted for this bill will have to start packing up their office,” said Stephanie Winkler, KEA’s president, at a press conference on Friday. Others are running for office. Setser-Kissick is one of 40 educators running for seats in the state legislature, which may be a historic number for the state. She credits the trend in part the organizational groundswell that met Bevin’s earliest attempts to cut pensions. “What happened here in Kentucky, I think, is that they had created a group on Facebook for teachers and state employees. And people started saying that if you want change you need to run for office,” she said. Upon finding that her would-be opponent faced no Democratic challenger, she stepped into the race.

Griffith, the public high school teacher, railed against conservative groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform due to their perceived influence on state legislators. “We’re going to campaign for and contribute against them,” he said, referring to conservative legislators with links to those groups.

In the meantime, walkouts are happening. Twenty school districts closed on Friday. KEA’s Winkler, asked directly at a Friday press conference if the organization would sanction a broader walkout, suggested it would: “I support teachers calling out sick if they’re ill. And they are ill.”

“We’ve seen the movement spread from West Virginia to Oklahoma and now it’s here,” Griffith said. “We need to shut it down,” he said in a text. “All 120 counties.”