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Kentucky Teachers Vow To Flex Their Political Muscle

Bruised by their fight over pensions, Kentucky teachers are mobilizing like never before to support legislative candidates who pass a key political test: support for public education.

Teachers and their supporters flocked by the thousands to Kentucky's Capitol on Monday to demand generous state funding for schools and decry pension changes they say will discourage people from entering the profession. And they had a blunt message for legislators opposing their agenda.

"We will remember in November," they chanted.

"We are realizing what a powerhouse we are," said Angela Coleman, an eighth grade teacher from Floyd County. "We can be a very, very big voting bloc."

As Kentucky's legislative session wound down, the influential Kentucky Education Association signaled it would turn its attention to the ballot box. All 100 state House seats and half the state Senate seats will be filled in what will be the first statewide election since Republicans took complete control of the legislature, where the GOP has strong majorities.

"We're going to organize people like never before," KEA President Stephanie Winkler told thousands of teachers and their supporters who gathered in front of the group's headquarters in Frankfort before the crowd marched to the state Capitol to make their voices heard.

"From this day forward, we're going to talk to every family member, every friend, every neighbor, every church member and colleague from Pikeville to Paducah and every town in between," she said.

Winkler, flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers she called friends of education, made clear that party affiliation would not be the deciding factor in determining which candidates earned teachers' support.

"Education is not a partisan issue," she said.

But some teachers are intent on punishing GOP lawmakers, who currently enjoy overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.

Elizabeth Long, a retired teacher from Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, said she plans to work harder than ever before for Democrats. Her main focus will be on the race for her local state House seat, which flipped from Democrats to Republicans in 2016, when the GOP took control of the House to complete its takeover of Kentucky's legislature.

Long will tap into friendships she built with people she taught who still live in the county.

"Many former students have contacted me and asked how they can help," she said.

Some teachers angered by the pension debate and other education policies took the ultimate step. More than two dozen current and former educators are running for legislative seats.

Meanwhile, Kentucky's Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, has positioned himself as an ally of teachers angered by the pension bill. Last week, Beshear used a megaphone during a rally in the Capitol to announce plans tosue to block the bill's implementation if Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signs it into law.

Bevin and Beshear have become bitter rivals since both took office after the 2015 election. Beshear, the son of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, is a potential candidate for governor himself in 2019. He said the pension bill breaches an inviolable contract with teachers and other state employees by freezing the accumulation of sick days to boost retirement benefits.

Winkler said the KEA will join Beshear in any potential lawsuit.

'A pretty good session'

Kentucky's pension system is among the worst-funded in the country. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, straining state and local government finances.

The legislature passed a bill that preserves most benefits for current workers. But it would require all new teachers to use a hybrid plan that does not guarantee them a set pension when they retire. Instead, they would live off the money accumulated from contributions and investment returns, which would be guaranteed not to lose money.

After the teachers' rally Monday, Kentucky lawmakers passed a new state budget that would provide record-high classroom spending. The plan sent to Bevin also restored $254 million for school transportation that Bevin had proposed eliminating. Funding was restored for family resource centers, a statewide program aimed at helping students deal with issues that can disrupt teaching. And the plan ensures that teachers who retired after 2010 but don't yet qualify for Medicare will have health insurance.

"Emotions are high right now but as voters are able to digest what was done this session, they'll see Republicans had the best interests of teachers and students at heart and the results this November will reflect it," said state Republican Party spokesman Tres Watson.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said once teachers review the plan, "they'll recognize that education ended up having a pretty great session."

The pension debate stirred attacks from both sides. At times, Bevin branded teachers opposing pension changes as "ignorant" and "throwing a temper tantrum." Teachers responded with anti-Bevin signs at rallies. That animosity, if it lasts into November, could hurt Bevin's fellow Republicans.

"They won't forget," state Democratic Party spokesman Brad Bowman said. "His insults aren't constructive nor indicative of leadership."

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, said he doubts teachers' anger will subside over how the final pension bill was rolled out by GOP leaders for a quick vote without public input. That should further ignite the party's followers during the fall campaign, he said.

"Six months is a lifetime in politics, so anything can happen," he said. "But ... I have never seen the Democratic base as energized as it is right now."

Jonese Franklin

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