Teachers Unite Against Kentucky GOP’s Attack on Educator Pensions

As Kentucky Republicans look to gut educators' pension system, throngs of teachers marched toward the Capitol steps Monday, waving signs that proclaimed, “This is not a math problem, you can’t divide us!”

[Photo: Teachers strike outside of the Kentucky state capitol]
Schools on Monday were closed across Kentucky’s 120 counties, many for spring break, but the rest in protest of the pension bill that now sits on the desk of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Courtesy of Sarah Baird

Shanna Lee has had enough.

With her hair tied back in a red bandana and holding a sign reading, “Find funding first!” bobbing among a sea of protesters along the lawn of the Kentucky State Capitol, the middle school teacher from Bowling Green—a town in the Pennyroyal Region of Kentucky—is among thousands who gathered Monday to rally against the recent passage of Senate Bill 151.

“We’re pissed about what happened Thursday night! It was shady how they acted,” Lee said, shaking her head before returning to a chant of “Hear us now!” with her fellow teachers.

Last Thursday, with the end of the legislative session looming, Republican lawmakers surprised Kentucky educators by tacking controversial pension legislation onto a sewage bill, SB 151. No Democrats voted for the bill. Legislators passed the hybrid bill through both the house and state Senate in a lightning-fast nine hours, without any time for the public to review it. For many teachers, it was early evening before they were made aware of what was happening in Frankfort, the state capital; they had, after all, been tending to their classrooms and students all day.

“What has occurred over the last 24 hours is nothing short of a bomb that has exploded on public service,” Kentucky Education Association (KEA) President Stephanie Winkler, a fourth-grade teacher from Madison County, said in a statement on Friday. “There was ample and repeated opportunity to discuss the specifics of this bill with KEA leadership and individual member stakeholders. That was never done.”

The changes to the pension system included in the bill are wide-ranging. Teachers will be unable to accumulate sick days to put toward their retirement after the end of 2018, and new teachers will have to work longer to gain complete retirement benefits—until their age and years of service add up to 87, as long as they are 57 years old, or they turn 65. Any teacher hired after January 1, 2019, will not be offered a pension, but instead placed into a hybrid cash-balance retirement plan. In Kentucky, teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, meaning that a pension (or its potential new cash-balance counterpart, which is less substantial than the traditional pension) is a necessary means of support and assistance for state educators after retirement.

[Photo: A protester holds a sign that reads "This is not a math problem. You can't divide us!]
(Courtesy of Sarah Baird)

While the bill excludes some of the more controversial pieces of the original pension legislation, like cuts to cost-of-living increases for both active and retired teachers, what remained was enough to warrant the closure of 26 school districts on Friday due to a critical mass of teachers calling in sick. The movement was deemed a “sick out” on social media.

Schools on Monday were closed across Kentucky’s 120 counties, many for spring break, but the rest in protest of the pension bill that now sits on the desk of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin has been at odds with teachers for weeks, stating in interviews that those opposing the pension bill had a “thug mentality” and are “selfish and short-sighted.”

Kentucky is the latest in a wave of states where teachers are protesting funding and salary cuts brought on by economic austerity programs that have drained state coffers. In March, West Virginia teachers led a nine-day strike over teacher pay and benefits, and educators in Arizona are teetering on the brink of strike after $4.6 billion was cut from public school funding since 2009. Jersey City, New Jersey, recently saw a walkout over rising health-care costs, and teachers across Oklahoma are preparing for a walkout of their own.

Teachers in Frankfort were also rallying to voice their concerns about budget cuts, which proposed changes to funding for public school transportation and health insurance.

“I’m here because I’m fighting for our kids. If our funding is cut, our kids lose, and I’m just not going to have it,” Linda Bailey, a teacher from Lee County in Eastern Kentucky, told Rewire.News. “It’s my 26th year of teaching, and I’ve never seen anything to this degree. I’m a parent, and I always say, ‘You can pick on me, but not on my kid.’ As a teacher, you can pick on me, but not on my kids. And that’s what they’re doing.”

Perhaps the most controversial piece of the pension reform bill is the voiding of the “inviolable contract” for any new teachers hired after January 2019. Without the inviolable contract, legislators will be able to tinker with the details of the new retirement plan at any point, and teachers cannot be guaranteed they’ll receive the benefits for which they originally signed on. For many, this fuels the fear that Kentucky will no longer be able to attract and retain top-notch teachers.

“They’re taking away funding for the teachers who are coming in, and they’re not going to have quality teachers to teach the kids. That’s a huge issue, because that’s our future right there. We’re obviously not in teaching for the pension or the money, we’re in it for the kids,” said Dianna Wolf, also a middle school teacher in Bowling Green.

Attempts by Kentucky Republicans to divide teachers between the “old guard” and the new had clearly not taken hold on Monday. Throngs of teachers chanted “United we stand, divided we fall!” (Kentucky’s state motto) as they marched side by side toward the Capitol steps, waving signs that proclaimed, “This is not a math problem, you can’t divide us!” and “So bad even the shop teachers are here!”

As the masses packed in tight on an unusually frigid April morning, a group of teachers noticed that a number of people in suits were looking out of a second-floor window and snapping photos of the protesters below. Soon, the crowd turned toward the window and erupted in sing-song chant of, “Na na na na! Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!”

When the voices died down, a woman behind chuckled. “How do we let them know that we have more degrees on this lawn than they do in that chamber?”