Politics & Government

Kentucky teachers storm the Capitol. ‘We have no choice but to be here.’

Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters in red waved signs and marched to the Capitol Monday morning to protest legislative changes to their pensions and education cuts, then filled every marble hallway with shouts of “Vote them out!” and “Enough is enough!”

What started as a rally appeared to turn into a broader electoral referendum on majority Republican lawmakers who last week attached a revised pension plan to a sewage bill without public input.

“We have no choice but to be here,” said Jeffrey Peeno, a Kenton County art teacher who wore a Guy Fawkes and carried a sign that said “Vote for Vendetta.” “We have to represent what we do. When they pass this with the sewage bill, it tells us exactly what we need to know about what they think of us.”

Numerous signs also took aim at Gov. Matt Bevin, who has repeatedly insulted teachers for their opposition to his pension overhaul plans, accusing them of “selfish” and “thuggish” behavior. He has vowed to fix the hugely underfunded pension systems for teachers and workers.

But legislators’ surprise pension bill, passed late last Thursday, puts new teachers into a hybrid cash-balance plan instead of a traditional pension and raises lifetime work years. But it would not reduce the annual 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers. Retired teachers in Kentucky do not get Social Security benefits, so any freeze in their pensions affects their total retirement income.

The event started in front of the Kentucky Education Association on Capital Avenue, as buses unloaded hundreds of people from remote parking stops. Becky Pringle, vice-president of the National Education Association, quoted W.E.B. DuBois: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental .... The freedom to learn... has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn.”

She was followed by a host of allies from the labor movement, including Bill Londrigan of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, who pointed out the numerous changes made by the first Republican majority in the Kentucky General Assembly when it took power last year, including bills on prevailing wage, charter schools and corporate tax breaks.

“If corporate giveaways are so great, why haven’t they generated enough income to support education?” he asked.

At the moment he was speaking, legislators were announcing a tax reform bill that makes the most significant changes in Kentucky’s tax system in 10 years, including an expansion of taxes to some services for the first time ever that could eventually grow Kentucky’s revenue base. Republicans also released a budget compromise that restored some education cuts, including transportation, and raised the main funding formula to $4,000 per student.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said some of the teachers at the massive rally Monday said “some things that were not so nice” to him as he walked into the Senate.

Some people have not recognized what has been done, Stivers said, pointing to increased funding in the budget for education. Reminded that the budget compromise was not released until Monday morning, Stivers said: “There’s something to that but I also would say on many occasions I reached out to have discussions and never got telephone calls back.”

That Kentucky’s antiquated tax system gives away more money that it takes in is at the root of the current underfunded pension system and nearly a decade in cuts to both K-12 and higher education.

But it’s not clear that the current budget and tax plan, which will be voted on Monday, will be enough to satisfy the large and angry voting bloc that filled Frankfort. On Friday, numerous school districts closed because so many teachers called in sick to go to Frankfort; on Monday even more districts closed as many more were already on spring break. Teachers have clearly been emboldened by a week-long teachers’ strike in West Virginia that successfully raised teacher pay, and another walk-out in Oklahoma to protest teacher pay and education cuts.

Teachers stayed in the Capitol all day, chanting, cheering and shouting at legislators.

Friday’s walk-out and Monday’s rally attracted national attention, as well, from news outlets and national Democrats hoping to capitalize on the anger.

“Today, Kentucky teachers are raising their voices against a surprise partisan bill that puts teachers behind corporate interests,” Democratic National Committee Chaiman Tom Perez said in a statement. “Democrats stand with Kentucky teachers as they fight for the pensions they deserve and the funding their schools need.”

Irma Jones, a teacher at Madison Central High School, said she came to support her students.

“I didn’t get in this for the pension, I got into to it to teach kids,” she said. She thinks that while teachers may have helped Republicans take the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Mansion, “I don’t think a single person here would vote them today.”

Alicia Bachman, a former teacher from Boone County, brought her two children to the rally. She believes even in her largely conservative area, electoral change could come in November.

“I just think there’s huge support for teachers in our region,” she said, “and if it takes a change in office to achieve that, that will occur.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

Jack Brammer contributed to this story.

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