Kentucky teachers proud of what they accomplished this session, but what’s next?

FRANKFORT — At a glance, their differences were obvious.

The women from Louisville were young. They were black.

Seated nearby, the women from Eastern Kentucky were older and white.

A quick listen and you could hear the differences, too.

Different accents. Different life experiences.

But if you stayed with them for a while you would discover what they’d known all along:

These women — these teachers — were in the same fight.

For the thousands of Kentucky educators who traversed the Capitol’s granite hallways this year and last, a movement sparked online exploded into an in-person fellowship.

Donning their signature red, they’ve sat through tedious hearings. They’ve networked with lawmakers in small groups and hollered rallying cries together as a boisterous crowd.

And in the quieter moments, conversations with each other refueled their fire.

“It’s like it’s the fourth quarter and they’re changing the rules of the game on us,” said Carole Bentley on the final day of Kentucky’s 2019 legislative session.

“That is such a good metaphor!” Destiny Livers exclaimed.

Bentley, from rural Floyd County, has a quarter-century of teaching experience under her belt. Livers, a teacher for Jefferson County Public Schools, has been in the classroom for just four years.

Teachers and supporters show solidarity at the Kentucky Capitol during one of the JCPS 'sickout' days during the recent legislative session.
Boliaux/Courier Journal)Teachers and supporters show solidarity at the Kentucky Capitol during one of the JCPS ‘sickout’ days during the recent legislative session. (Photo: Nicole Boliaux, Nicole 

Seated in the House gallery waiting for lawmakers to return from closed-door meetings, the women, having just met each other, spent close to an hour sharing their concerns about the future of their profession.

Bentley fretted about rising healthcare costs for retirees, while Livers questioned how she would ever find the time or the money to start a family. There are a vast amount of differences and miles between their districts, yet both struggle to find enough teachers for every class.

The sum of the women’s conversation echoed countless others heard throughout the building over the past year. Teachers are increasingly worried that one day soon, Kentucky’s students won’t have dedicated, qualified professionals to serve them.

“People say to me, ‘You know what? You signed up for this,’” said third-year JCPS teacher Kiara Rollerson. “No, I didn’t. I had no idea I would be sitting in Frankfort.”

Wayne Lewis: Punishing ‘sickout’ teachers is ‘not where I want to be

‘Nothing to fall back on in retirement’

When Kentucky joined a wave of national teacher protests in 2018, the Bluegrass State stood out from the pack. Unlike teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers weren’t pushing — initially, at least — for more education funding.

They were furious over proposed changes to their retirement benefits.

Teachers’ critics have since used that to their advantage, painting a narrative of a profession where educators are more concerned about their bottom line than the success of their students.

But to the thousands of teachers who stormed the Capitol since 2018, that narrative is patently false.

In Kentucky, teachers do not receive Social Security benefits.

“That’s why we’re so adamant about keeping (a defined benefit pension),” said Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler. “We have nothing else to fall back on in our retirement.”

Winkler and others, including the grassroots advocacy group KY 120 United, have been staunchly opposed to Republican-backed plans for newly hired teachers to be shut out of the pension system.

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Without the guarantee that they’ll be able to support themselves in retirement, young people will turn away from the teaching profession and that ultimately harms students, Winkler said.

“Taxpayers have a hard time understanding how fighting for a pension is like fighting for our kids,” she said. “But what the public needs to understand is that we are at a crisis point in education … We are seeing record lows of folks entering the profession.”

‘We’d like to start playing offense’

Despite pressure from Gov. Matt Bevin, lawmakers made no headway this session in solving the state’s pension crisis.

Across all state plans, Kentucky is in the hole for $43 billion in unfunded liabilities. And though the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System is the best funded plan, educators say they worry the problems of the whole could land on their shoulders.

Though Bevin said this month he would not call a special session to address the issue, teachers remain uneasy.

But they’re also starting to feel their power.

In a message sent Friday, KY 120 United leaders told the group’s nearly 40,000 members to be “proud” of what they accomplished in the 2019 session, including the demise of charter school and private school measures the group said would have funneled resources away from cash-strapped public schools.

Bleak budget, teacher impact and other 2019 Kentucky legislature takeaways

The group is asking its members, which include teachers and other public school employees, to stay engaged.

“It’s important because we’ve been playing defense for the past two sessions,” said group leader Jeni Boldander. “We’d like to start playing offense.”

KY 120 United wants its members to campaign for gubernatorial candidates supportive of their cause, to ask lawmakers to grab coffee and to talk to their friends, family and neighbors about what the state’s public schools need.

“This does not include being a keyboard warrior, but does include actual face-to-face conversation,” the group’s note said to members.

Building relationships with lawmakers

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican, said this month he would welcome teachers’ engagement in the off season.

In a recent interview, Nemes said teachers have “legitimate reasons” to be upset and pointed to the passage last year of what now has become known as the “sewer bill.”

“Legislators have to understand that we have a role in what is going on, as well,” he said. “We must build bridges. We must build trust. There’s no doubt about that.”

But Nemes remained critical about the teacher “sickouts” that forced 10 school districts to close this session, including JCPS, which shut down six times.

Those sickouts, though not endorsed by the teachers union, emboldened the teachers’ critics.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, Kentucky’s 2016 teacher of the year, said teachers “have every right” to fight for their students. But they’re battling a negative perception of the teaching profession and work stoppages could contribute to that, she said.

“I’m not saying that those things aren’t effective,” she said. “But there are also other steps.”

Lamb-Sinclair recently left the classroom to launch an online platform for teachers to collaborate called Curio Learning. But her experiences while serving as teacher of the year taught her, she said, that face-to-face meetings with lawmakers can have a lasting impact.

“It’s really easy to throw around tag lines,” she said. “It’s really difficult to build relationships and have conversations that cross the aisle.”

Lamb-Sinclair took a yearlong sabbatical in 2016 to work as an adviser at the Kentucky Department of Education. During that time, she used her teaching experience to influence lawmakers developing Senate Bill 1, a far-reaching education reform bill.

Lamb-Sinclair said she hopes more teachers will seek out their representatives now that session is over.

“So that when the legislature starts again and an education issue comes up, lawmakers are going to make a phone call when that bill comes down to a teacher they’ve built a relationship with,” she said.

An invitation for legislators

Winkler, whose term as union president will come to an end this summer, said she is excited to return to her elementary school classroom.

But she won’t be backing down from her advocacy.

“Until a kid’s basic needs are met, they have a hard time learning anything else,” she said, noting her frustration that lawmakers this session failed to find any new forms of revenue.

From poverty, to school safety, to the opioid crisis, Kentucky’s teachers “feel very alone” when trying to support their students from all angles, Winkler said. She has spent her own money to help her students’ families with clothing, groceries and housing, she said.

“I’m not unique in that regard,” she said. “People do it all over this state … And we don’t advertise it because that’s not what people want advertised.”

Between now and next session, during which the legislature must pass a two-year budget, Winkler is inviting all lawmakers to spend a day in a public school.

“They need to see what reality is,” she said. “I’m not talking about going and visiting. I’m talking about spending an entire day. Ride the school bus, follow a teacher, all the different positions … Walk in the shoes of people that do this job.”


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