Kentucky educators have returned to their classrooms after staging the state's largest teacher protest in decades, but they're not finished fighting. The rally that drew 8,000 people to the Capitol in Frankfort on April 2 channeled their collective anger over a legislative sneak attack on teacher pensions and other benefits, which legislators carried out by surreptitiously tucking the reforms into a bill regulating sewage treatment. With the bill now signed into law, teachers are turning their momentum to shaking up the November elections.

"We're hopefully going to wallpaper the state so that six or seven months from now people haven't already forgotten," said Erin Grace, a high school Spanish teacher and Vice President of the Central District of the Kentucky Education Association (KEA). "We have to get new people in those positions."

The April 2 protest was only the latest in a string of actions staged by KEA and teachers across the state since the legislature kicked off the 2018 session by discussing reforms that would replace public pensions with 401A cash-hybrid plans. School districts sent delegations to Frankfort for weeks, and teachers staged "sick-outs," forcing schools to close by calling in sick en masse, leaving districts without enough substitutes to cover the absences. It's illegal for teachers to officially strike in Kentucky.

Educators responded with such urgency because Kentucky is one of 10 states that do not allow teachers coverage under Social Security––even if they paid into it before or after working as a teacher––so they rely solely on pensions for their retirement. Kentucky teachers are subject to an "inviolable contract" in state law that requires them to pay 13 percent of their paycheck into their pension system and obligates the state to match the amount. But for the past 15 years, the state has underfunded the system by not putting in the matching amount they are legally required to contribute, and by investing pension funds in high-risk, high-fee plans that have lost money.

The rally that drew 8,000 people to the Capitol channeled collective anger over a legislative sneak attack on teacher pensions.

Kentucky teachers flooded the Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky on April 2, 2018 protesting changes to their pensions. Credit: Jacob Mack-Boll

"Not only are we getting destroyed by the government who is not paying its share, but then we're getting killed by a thousand tiny cuts of these investments which are just siphoning off public money to keep [investors] rich," said James Kay, a Democratic representative from Woodford County who's served on the Public Pension Oversight Board for four years.

Kentucky has eight separate pension systems for different public employees, including teachers, county employees, police officers and firefighters, and the legislators themselves. Some of them are fully funded, while others are in debt that will take years to repay.

Kay proposed a pension reform bill this session that would have moved legislators into the same pension system as teachers ("I guarantee you it'll make people fund those retirements better," he said), and dedicated streams of revenue into pensions by taxing prescription opiates, increasing the cigarette tax and cutting the executive branch in half, among other things. The bill was never heard in committee. Instead, Republican legislators attached a rider effectively ending public pensions for teachers onto the sewage bill one day before it was scheduled for a vote.

Kentucky is one of 10 states that do not allow teachers coverage under Social Security––even if they paid into it before or after working as a teacher.

The newly minted pension bill reduces and diminishes benefits for teachers. It ends the inviolable contract for new teachers, stripping their retirement security. It also moves current teachers into far less secure hybrid cash balance plans that depend on market returns. These plans eliminate cost of living adjustments, cap use of sick-leave toward retirement benefits, increase the retirement age, and shift costs onto local school districts.

"It's a miracle that we didn't get screwed over worse, because they wanted to," said Grace, the KEA Central District Vice President. "It's because we've been so proactive…We made them all nervous."

When Grace moved to Rockcastle County two years ago, she expected to live a quiet life teaching during the day, and spending evenings with her husband.

"I did not think I was going to be on the vanguard of the movement in Rockcastle County," Grace said.

But when Bernie Sanders made waves during the 2016 election, Grace saw a political shift happening, and she got excited about being involved. She joined her local chapter of KEA, the Rockcastle County Education Association (RCEA), and was president within a month. From there she was elected to her current position, which oversees 27 school districts in the central part of the state.

Rockcastle County is a mostly rural county that leans red in most state and national elections, so Grace was expecting some resistance to organizing teachers there. But when this year's legislative session started, and the first Senate bill filed threatened to gut teacher pensions, she didn't have to try too hard.

"I didn't have to convince anybody of anything down there," she said. "I was there at the right time and the right place to stir just enough to get people to do what they already knew they wanted to do."

Kentucky teachers flooded the Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky on April 2, 2018 protesting changes to their pensions. Credit: Jacob Mack-Boll

Teachers in her county staged walk-ins at their schools, which are rallies in support of public education on school grounds before teachers walk into the school building to teach. RCEA sent delegations to Frankfort nearly every day of session, and Grace was a delegate many times.
When SB 1––the original pension reform bill––wasn't moved out of committee, many teachers thought they had won. Lawmakers, however, were undeterred by their mass mobilization. House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell (R-Lancaster) and Rep. John "Bam" Carney (R-Campbellsville) introduced a 291-page amendment to SB 151, the sewage bill, in the House State Government Committee. The committee approved the amendments without the legally required actuarial analysis, and with no public comment, as is customary.

The amendment was sent to the House for a full vote, where debate began within minutes. After more than three hours of debate, it was passed on to the Senate by a vote of 49-46. Debate again began within minutes in the Senate chambers, and again, it was quickly passed, 22-15, and sent to Gov. Matt Bevin's desk for signature. Not even a full school day passed from the time the amendment was proposed in the State Government Committee, to the time it was sent to the governor. Moving such a massive amendment through the government process in a matter of hours doesn't just happen; it takes days of back-door maneuvering by legislators with the governor.

Grace was in Frankfort with an RCEA delegation on March 29, the day SB 151 passed. She said they were told the hearing would happen in one location, then found out it was happening elsewhere. Teachers ran across the capitol to get to the meeting on time, only to be barred at the door once they arrived.

"It was just sickening," Grace said. No financial analysis of the bill happened, and the president of KEA, Stephanie Winkler, was not allowed to comment. "You can tell it's an agenda."

Teachers are outraged about the bill's passage, especially because it happened mostly in secret and behind closed doors with little outside analysis or public comment. They're also fed up with being publicly demonized by Bevin, who has consistently called them "lazy, ill-informed," and "ignorant," through various media outlets, and on social media.

Most recently, he erroneously linked teacher protests to child sexual abuse: "I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them," he said. "I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were left alone because a single parent didn't have any money to take care of them."

Bevin's bizarre claims sparked a backlash, even among his Republican colleagues, forcing him to apologize. But his offensive comments, coupled with back-door dealings to undercut teacher pensions, have only served to sway public opinion against the governor and legislature.

Now that the pension bill has passed, focus is shifting toward elections in November. Almost 30 current or former educators have filed to run for office in Kentucky, including a math teacher in Rockcastle County. KEA is mounting "Remember in November" and "I am an education voter" campaigns.

This fight is about more than education…teachers are carrying the banner for other public employees who do not have collective bargaining rights, or the right to strike.

Teachers across the state are organizing voter registration drives through Facebook groups where they previously organized marches and rallies and vented frustrations about edicts handed down from Frankfort. Many intend to do all they can to make sure certain politicians do not get reelected.

"In the fall, I will find a candidate for governor that I can support with good conscience, and I will work to help that person get elected," said middle school social studies and history teacher, Michelle Gambill. "I will also actively campaign against Matt Bevin for any Kentucky office which he decides to run, because his dogmatic positions do not impress me."

Gambill has taught in Perry County for 27 years. She could retire in May if she chooses, but professes she's "not done yet." She loves teaching and enjoys her time in the classroom with her kids. She was awarded the Perry County Middle School Teacher of the Year award in 2016.

"I work to support my family, but lucky for me, I also enjoy that work," Gambill said. "I keep hoping to inspire a few more, to catch one more as they are falling through the cracks, to just let a few more know that someone cares and believes in them. Not only in class, but in life."

She is appalled by the changes made to the pension system, calling them a "recipe for disaster to the entire process of public education." But that's not her only concern. Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing charter schools in Kentucky for the first time. Bevin, a proponent of privatizing education, pushed lawmakers this year to create a mechanism for funding charters by diverting money from traditional public schools. But teachers protested against charters at the same time they rallied against pension reform. As a result, legislators did not include charter funding in the budget. This prompted Bevin to veto the entire budget, but the legislature overrode his veto.

"The worse public education gets, the better charter schools will sound," Gambill said. But charters often come with more problems than solutions. Looking at what has happened in other states, teachers like Gambill fear Kentucky's charter schools will employ under-qualified teachers to cut costs and will find ways to push out students they don't want.

"Educating the masses means just that: each one of them," Gambill said.

For many teachers, this fight is about more than education. Grace believes that teachers are carrying the banner for other public employees, most of whom do not have collective bargaining rights, or the right to strike, per state law.

"In an ideal world, it becomes bigger than just being about the teachers; it becomes about the workers," Grace said. She sees teachers in her district becoming educated about politics and motivated to make change for themselves and their community in a way she hasn't seen before. "Win or lose – whatever comes out of all this – there are a lot more people that [have their] eyes opened."  

"Educating the masses means just that: each one of them."

Grace and many other teachers hope to keep building on their current momentum and overwhelm polling stations in November to oust the legislators who pushed the pension reform.

Grace is determined to vote out her legislator, Jonathan Shell. She lives in the woods in Rockcastle County at the end of a mile-long driveway that crosses a creek three times before reaching her house. When the creek's up, she parks her car at the end of the driveway and walks through the woods to reach her car. Many of her trips to Frankfort started with this hike, wearing a headlamp and muck boots, and carrying a knife that she had to leave in her car before entering the Capitol.

"I think it emboldened me," she said. "I was ready to fight a bear this morning, so you don't scare me, Jonathan Shell."

Ivy Brashear is the Appalachian Transition Coordinator at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky. She is also a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Next City and Huffington Post.