Power

The rebellion in Kentucky

As the state tries to cut their pension plans, teachers fight back.
Power

The rebellion in Kentucky

As the state tries to cut their pension plans, teachers fight back.

Last Thursday night, the Kentucky legislature passed a pension-reform bill that promises to gut teacher benefits. Poignantly for many teachers, the 291-page bill was surreptitiously included in a larger piece of legislation concerning sewage services. In response to the bill’s rushed passage, the state’s attorney general vowed to sue Gov. Matt Bevin should the governor sign the bill into law. The Kentucky Education Association labelled the process by which the bill was passed “shameful,” and called for the rally that saw thousands of teachers flood the capitol.

All of this was the latest in what many educators view as a war on public education occurring nationwide. A successful strike by West Virginia teachers last month has inspired fervent organizing across the country. Ten days after West Virginia teachers agreed to a deal, Jersey City teachers struck, and now Arizona teachers are threatening to do the same. In Oklahoma, teachers began yesterday what may well be a full-blown strike. And on the same day, thousands of teachers in Kentucky rallied at the capitol in protest of the pension-reform bill and the possibility of cuts to public education that may come in the state-budget bill which will be unveiled this week.

While the Kentucky bill does not include some of the most odious proposed cuts — such as a reduction in cost-of-living allowances for teachers — it limits the impact of sick-leave benefits for retirement and introduces a system in which new hires will enter a “hybrid” pension plan, a change that will also affect many newly hired city, county, and state employees. Because public-school teachers in the state don’t receive Social Security benefits, changes to teachers’ pensions provoke widespread outrage.

“My three-and-a-half-year-old son was born just after I started my job,” said Byron Gary, one such employee who expects to lose the guaranteed pension return he was promised when he took his job in the air pollution control board in Louisville. He added that while he is concerned about his own retirement, he’s more worried about what the two-tiered system for teachers’ pensions will mean for his son’s teachers. “Any teachers he has won't have the same pension plan, so that might affect people's’ decisions of whether or not to take teaching jobs,” he said. “He might not have the same quality of teaching or if he does, his teachers will have to constantly worry about their own future. My concern is not just for myself, but for the future of the state.”

Kentucky has one of the most poorly funded pension systems in the country, a product of underperforming investments, persistent underfunding, and the use of hedge-fund investment managers by Kentucky Retirement Systems, the agency in charge of the fund. Teachers acknowledge the severity of the pension crisis, but disagree with how the legislature wants to close the gap in funding. Teachers who spoke with The Outline suggested closing corporate tax loopholes, legalizing marijuana, or otherwise taxing luxury services, many of which are stand untaxed in the state, Gov. Bevin’s preferred approach is demanding further austerity from the public sector. Despite sneaking the bill through without time for an actuarial analysis, even its cuts are estimated to provide only a few hundred million in funding, nowhere close to closing in on the state’s $41 billion shortfall.

Teachers in the state do not have much hope that Gov. Bevin will have a change of heart and not sign the pension-reform bill into law (following the bill’s passage on Thursday, Bevin tweeted that “Anyone who will receive a retirement check in the years ahead owes a deep debt of gratitude” to lawmakers who passed the measure). On Friday, thousands of teachers held a “sick out” in protest of the bill’s passage, causing twenty-six counties to shut down schools for the day, and on Monday they rallied at the capitol in hopes of pressuring their representatives to reject the most drastic cuts being proposed to the state’s budget.

The cuts of greatest concern to teachers include those to Family Resource and Youth Service Centers (FRYSCs), which was described to me as a sort of “social worker in the school” and a critical source of support, especially in high-poverty eastern Kentucky. The other is cuts to transportation which, beyond being a basic necessity for students, is used in cities like Louisville to bus students to schools which would otherwise be socioeconomically segregated. As a result of this bussing, Lousiville-Jefferson County ranks as one of the most integrated school districts in the country. Cuts to public universities are also on the table.

“FRYSCs are where we send backpacks of food home with children on Fridays so they can have food throughout the weekend,” said Dustin Robinson, a school counselor in Carter County. Although her school is on spring break this week, she said that teachers had delivered kids backpack meals on Easter Sunday to ensure those in need would have enough food to last them through the week off.

As was the case for last month’s strikers in West Virginia, Kentucky’s union history, particularly in the eastern part of the state that has long been home to coal mining, informed many of the teachers rallying to defend what they see as the future of their communities. “My dad was a United Mine Worker, and I grew up seeing him come home from the picket line, bullet holes in his truck and him in jail for fighting on the line,” said Nema Brewer, a Fayette County school-district employee and one of the co-founders of KY 120 UNITED, a Facebook group inspired by similar efforts in West Virginia. In a state in which just about everyone has a teacher in the family, this feeling of a united community defending what is often the sole remaining public space in town — the school — was not unique. “I’m a fourth-generation teacher, and that’s not that uncommon,” said Dustin Robinson “In eastern Kentucky, the school is the rallying point for the community. It’s where people host baby showers. The whole community revolves around the school, and the most well-respected people in the community are the teachers.”

This broad support for their actions is what Kentucky teachers, like their counterparts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, are relying upon as Gov. Bevin continues to vilify them (late last month, he said teachers were “selfish and sort-sighted” for not supporting his reforms). “They do understand what’s going on, and they do support us,” said Brewer in reference to the families affected by school closures.

Although the pension reform seems almost guaranteed to be signed into law, teachers aren’t defeated. They spoke of the dozens of educators running for office, many of whom are challenging legislators who voted in favor of the bill. As to what comes next, Brewer seemed unbowed. Acknowledging that “we’re likely to get our asses handed to us in the budget,” she said that teachers, in a way, had already won. “We've won because we didn't let ourselves be run over, we stood up for ourselves like Kentuckians do, and I hope people don’t forget that. Complacency is not an option.”

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin.
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