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Amid Kentucky Teacher Protests, Worries About State Pensions And Priorities

Teachers protest at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 2, 2018.
Roxanne Scott
Teachers protest at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 2, 2018.

Dan Brennan has a hunch why some public service workers — like public school teachers — aren’t paid well.

“People could call it a calling and say 'because it’s a calling, we don’t have to pay you that well,'” Brennan, a music teacher from Eastern Kentucky, said. “We don’t have to compensate you that well …you’d do it anyway.”

Brennan was one of the thousands who came to the Capitol on Monday to protest cuts to education funding as well as a change to the state’s pension system. Last Thursday night, lawmakers passed a last-minute pension overhaul. It would cap the amount of sick days that teachers could use towards retirement. It would also swap a traditional pension plan — where certain benefits are guaranteed — for cash-balance retirement plans that depend on the stock market but are guaranteed to not lose money.

Lawmakers and Gov. Matt Bevin have said some pension reform is necessary: the state has a $41 billion unfunded pension liability. That's the amount of money needed to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years.

But the recent pension bill was passed without an actuarial analysis, and bill sponsor Rep. Bam Carney said it would only save the state about $300 million over the next 30 years, a fraction of the pension debt.

And these are cuts that teachers say will have a big effect on their ability to afford to teach…and to retire.

“When we sign our contracts to go into teaching, we have nulled our ability to collect Social Security,” said Courtney Sorrell, a middle school teacher in Covington. She’s referring to the fact that in Kentucky — and 14 other states — public school teachers aren’t eligible for federal Social Security benefits.

“I know me personally, I work three jobs. I know I will not be collecting money from Social Security even though I pay into it,” Sorrell said. "Yep, three jobs … this is public education: we’re not in it for the big bucks."

Federal law also limits what Kentucky school teachers get of a deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits.

“When my husband should pass away I would be limited on the amount of Social Security that I would be able to receive for the same reason,” said retired Fayette County teacher Susie Nally.

Besides these personal financial and retirement issues, many Kentucky teachers say they’re also here protesting state cuts to education funding.

A recent report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found the state has not re-invested in education since the Great Recession.

And teachers don’t want to see further cuts. Courtney Sorrell says there’s a lot at stake:

“Transportation, family and your resource centers which provide clothing, food, textbooks, instructional materials, band, cutting down speech therapy, mental health services, counseling services,” she said. “I mean, the list goes on and on.”

Many of the teachers at the Capitol say these spending cuts, combined with the pension bill sends a message on how lawmakers — and society — value teachers and public education.

“I think there’s two different questions for me,” said Bellarmine University theology professor Justin Klassen.

“One is: how do we treat teachers and other public employees as people? And the other is: how does the way we treat them say on how we value public goods in general and what does it say about our society and it’s health?”

Klassen said how we support public education says a lot on how we understand the public good.

“It says whether or not we believe in the mutual character of human flourishing,” he said. “If we think we flourish alone or together. And failing investment in such goods is a warning sign.”

At the Capitol Monday, JCPS teacher Kelly Egan was baffled about why it appeared many legislators don’t value public education.

“I’m not sure why they don’t value that,” she said. “I mean, we’re the glue that keeps it together.”

And she said from her vantage point, the the current situation doesn’t bode well for Kentucky.




Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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