Tom Eblen

The battle for public education in Kentucky has just begun. Next, it's about ballots.

Teachers march on the Capitol. ‘We’re here for our kids’

Thousands of Kentucky teachers stormed the state Capitol April 2 to protest pension benefit cuts, oppose charter schools and advocate for better education funding.
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Thousands of Kentucky teachers stormed the state Capitol April 2 to protest pension benefit cuts, oppose charter schools and advocate for better education funding.

The General Assembly has adjourned, and thousands of protesting teachers have left the Capitol and gone back to their classrooms. But the battle for public schools and universities in Kentucky has just begun.

With elections coming up, teachers will remember Republican lawmakers who rushed through a secret pension bill, cutting their benefits. University professors will remember how a secret Republican budget was rushed through gutting tenure protections for faculty members in programs whose budgets are cut.

And there are plenty of budget cuts, accelerating a trend that has been going on for more than a decade because weak-kneed governors and legislators of both parties have been afraid to raise enough new tax revenue to meet Kentucky’s needs.

About $25 million in additional cuts are now rippling through Kentucky’s eight public universities. Eastern Kentucky University is cutting 153 jobs, closing a regional campus and slashing academic programs, including economics and theater. Western Kentucky University is cutting 140 jobs and closing an academic college. Morehead State University is offering employee buyouts. The list goes on and on.

Per-pupil public school funding by 2020 will be 16 percent less than what it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Likewise, per-student state appropriations for higher education have fallen more than 26 percent since 2008, when adjusted for inflation.

This damage has long-term implications. The pension bill shifted new teachers from a traditional pension to a riskier cash-balance plan that could be cut again at any time. Will that make the best and brightest students think twice about a teaching career in Kentucky? You bet it will.

Removing tenure protections make Kentucky universities less attractive to top professors. Even worse, it threatens academic freedom. Professors will think twice before speaking out on public issues if they know politicians may retaliate with budget cuts that could cost them their jobs.

EKU students held a mock funeral to protest budget cuts to Kentucky higher education on Monday, April 23, 2018.

But this battle isn’t just about teachers and professors; it is about Kentucky’s future. It is about the state’s quality of life, its prosperity and its ability to compete and succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.

As bad as the new education budget and pension changes are, things would have been worse had Republican lawmakers gone along with deeper budget and pension cuts favored by their own party’s governor, Matt Bevin, who can’t seem to go more than a few days without insulting public school teachers.

No sooner had lawmakers left town than Bevin restructured the state Board of Education, which immediately replaced Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt with Wayne Lewis, chair of the Kentucky Charter Schools Advisory Council. Bevin’s plan seems to be to create and fund charter schools, perhaps by funneling public money to private charter school companies.

Bevin is always saying he wants to create jobs and improve Kentucky’s economy. The most proven way of doing that over the long haul is to invest in public schools and universities, as Kentucky has at times in the past.

But when Bevin talks about education, what he really means is “workforce development.” He doesn’t seem to want educated, engaged citizens who can become innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs. He wants docile, non-union factory workers who can attract outside corporations to Kentucky — at least until they get bigger tax breaks somewhere else.

One of the best ways to thwart this war on public education is by electing more educators to public office. Thankfully, dozens of them are now running for legislative seats and other offices across the state.

“Public education is the heartbeat of our community,” said Tyler Murphy, 30, a Woodford County Middle School teacher from Lexington who announced his candidacy Tuesday for the Fayette County School Board. “It's what creates opportunities, breaks down barriers and inspires lifelong learning. But as we know, public education is under attack here in Kentucky and across the country, which is why it’s important we elect advocates at every level who will fight for public school children and the future they deserve.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.