The thousands of public school teachers who filled Kentucky’s Capitol during the legislative session to protest Republican cuts to their pensions and Gov. Matt Bevin’s insulting behavior had one clear message: “We’ll remember in November.”
As it turns out, it didn’t take that long.
Travis Brenda, a Rockcastle County High School math teacher, narrowly unseated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the Republican primary for District 71, which covers Garrard, Rockcastle and part of Madison counties. Brenda will face Democrat Mary Renfro in November.
Shell, a rising GOP star who was considering a bid for House speaker, helped write the Republican pension legislation, which was kept secret before being quickly rammed through with little debate as an amendment to a sewage treatment bill.
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Shell was one of four Republican incumbents who faced primary challenges Tuesday from teachers. He was the only one who lost — but the other three voted against the pension bill.
Brenda was among 44 current and former educators who filed to run for legislative seats this year. Except for four or five incumbents, most were political novices inspired to run by what they saw as Republican leaders’ assault on teachers and public education.
Seven educators won primaries Tuesday. The Kentucky Education Association estimates 32 of the 44 will move on to the general election, either because they won a primary or didn’t face one. Most are Democrats.
“I think educators and their families showed with their votes that our elected officials must do better,” KEA President Stephanie Winkler said Wednesday.
If Republicans lose control of the Kentucky House, which they gained only two years ago for the first time in 95 years, it will be because of the activism of public school educators and other state employees and retirees. A Lexington teacher I know was on Facebook urging her colleagues to paste their “I voted” sticker on an index card with their school’s name on it and mail it to the governor’s office.
It isn’t just Kentucky. Teachers from West Virginia to Arizona are fed up with low pay and years of poor funding of education by anti-tax politicians. Kentucky teachers erupted last fall because they didn’t think their pension benefits should be cut because governors and legislators of both parties had underfunded the system for most of the past 15 years.
Many of the pension changes only affect future teachers. But education advocates correctly point out that they would discourage Kentucky’s best and brightest students from considering low-pay, high-stress jobs in public education.
Educators also have been outraged by Bevin’s promotion of charter schools, his hatred of teachers’ unions and, perhaps most of all, his constant barrage of insults.
Much like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, another charter school advocate, Bevin knows little about public education and has no interest in learning. Many educators think he is simply following a GOP playbook to privatize public schools along with other government services.
Bevin blames teachers and administrators for many of the problems in Kentucky’s chronically under-funded schools. But he ignores the fact that, to a large extent, public schools reflect problems in the larger society, such as poverty, drugs and a breakdown in family structures.
What Bevin fails to understand is that most Kentuckians hold public educators in high regard. In many counties, school systems are among the largest employers and sources of community pride. The people who work there are among the most-educated and most-respected people in the community.
When he keeps calling public school educators “selfish,” “ignorant” and “unsophisticated” for challenging him, a lot of Kentuckians don’t take it well. And they vote accordingly.