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These Kentucky teachers rallied for more education funding. Now they’re running for office.

“We need educators in office. We need a culture change in Frankfort.”

Kentucky Public school teachers rally for a "day of action" at the Kentucky State Capitol to try to pressure legislators to override Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's recent veto of the state's tax and budget bills, April 13, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Kentucky Public school teachers rally for a "day of action" at the Kentucky State Capitol to try to pressure legislators to override Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's recent veto of the state's tax and budget bills, April 13, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Dozens of Kentucky teachers who rallied for more education funding at the state Capitol this spring are now taking a different approach to changing policy: They’ve put themselves on the ballot.

At least 40 educators, representing both the Republican and Democratic parties, are running for office. Fifteen of them are in races in Tuesday’s primary elections in Kentucky.

“I’m going to help make Kentucky a better place.”

Jenny Urie’s campaign for District 62 state representative has kept her so busy over the last several weeks that even her six-year-old daughter has started to notice.

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“She said, ‘Mommy, you’re in a race, aren’t you?’” Urie, a high school social studies teacher and Democratic candidate, told ThinkProgress. “And she asked me, ‘what are you going to do if you win?’ I said, ‘I’m going to help make Kentucky a better place.’”

Urie (far left) speaks with constituents at a candidate meet-and-greet on May 9. (Credit: Facebook, Scott County Kentuckians For The Commonwealth)
Urie (far left) speaks with constituents at a candidate meet-and-greet on May 9. (Credit: Facebook, Scott County Kentuckians For The Commonwealth)

That goal is a universal one among Kentucky’s teacher candidates, who are fed up with the state’s handling of teacher pensions, which have been consistently underfunded under multiple gubernatorial administrations. Throughout March and April, thousands of educators staged rallies and strikes across the state to push back against a measure that would have cut retired teachers’ yearly cost-of-living raises in an effort to fund the pension. At nearly $40 billion in debt, Kentucky has one of the worst-funded pensions in the country.

The measure was later amended to remove the cost-of-living provisions and was quietly tucked into a 300-page sewage services bill. That version required new teachers to enter a hybrid cash balance plan and limits the number of sick days teachers can put toward their retirement. It also ended the state’s inviolable contract with public employees, which currently protects the retirement benefits of public workers — like teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officers — from being reduced or altered.

The Senate passed the bill in late March, and Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed it into law days later — despite widespread condemnations from teachers, who argued that the legislation was advanced without consulting educators or obtaining an actuarial analysis to determine the bill’s fiscal impact.

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The legislation was “just disgusting,” said Matthew Kauffman, a Democratic candidate for Senate District 26 and an English teacher of 11 years. Kauffman said he was disheartened by what he viewed as “shortsighted leadership.”

“They pushed [the bill] through and locked us out,” he told ThinkProgress. “This year, we see public workers, not just educators, under attack …The contract wasn’t just with us, it was with the entire community. I couldn’t just sit back and be angry. I had to get involved in this.”

Susan Back is running for State Representative of District 61. (Credit: Courtesy of Susan Back)
Susan Back is running for State Representative of District 61. (Credit: Courtesy of Susan Back)

Susan Back, a high school counselor and Republican candidate for House District 61, agreed.

“There was no transparency during this session… They had an agenda that was done behind closed doors,” she said, adding that education is a “bipartisan issue” that should not have resulted in such glaring disagreements among the state’s leadership.

In mid-April, following the passage of the controversial pension bill, thousands of teachers rallied at the state Capitol to fight for a different piece of legislation. They urged legislators to override Bevin’s veto of a budget measure that would increase education funding by nearly $500 million through tax increases — and they were ultimately successful. The Senate voted 20-18 to override the governor’s veto.

Bevin — who had previously come under fire for calling teachers “selfish” and “ignorant” for protesting — responded by accusing teachers of putting kids in danger of sexual assault by striking.

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“You know how many hundreds of thousands of children were left home alone today? 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,” Bevin told reporters in April.

His comments drew fierce criticism from both sides of the aisle, including from teachers who are now running for office.

Back said the governor’s “slandering comments” against teachers were “disgraceful.”  

R. Travis Brenda, a Republican candidate for House District 71, said he has been “disappointed” in Bevin’s leadership. “My wife and I voted for Gov. Bevin for his stance on Christian, moral issues, but when he has come out and said teachers are ‘ignorant’ and ill-informed, I don’t think any of that helped the process,” Brenda said.

Now, Brenda will face off against Republican House Leader Jonathan Shell, who was instrumental in pushing the contentious pension bill through the legislature, in what will likely be the state’s most-watched race this week.

Despite the small gain in overriding the governor’s veto, the outrage over Bevin continued to embolden teachers in their respective races, who saw the show of activism across the state as proof that educators are the ones who should be at the forefront of the decision-making process.

“Our education system is under attack and no one knows our schools better than teachers.”

“Right now, it’s really popular for candidates to be pro-education, but it’s different for someone who is an educator, who has been on the front lines,” Kauffman said. “Our education system is under attack and no one knows our schools better than teachers.”

“We need educators in office. We need a culture change in Frankfort,” he added.

Kauffman speaking with a constituent. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, Matthew Kaufmann)
Kauffman speaking with a constituent. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, Matthew Kaufmann)

Kauffman and Brenda both expressed their belief in the power of education to solve much of the state’s other problems — from overcoming poverty and reducing crime, according to Kauffman, to facilitating economic development, according to Brenda.

“We have to have an educated workforce to attract new business to the area,” said Brenda, who has taught high school math for nearly 20 years. His campaign is shaped by three key issues — the state’s pension crisis, the opioid epidemic, and economic development — that he says all “go hand-in-hand.”

“You can do a lot of complaining on Facebook, you can do a lot of protesting, and that’s great, but I thought the best thing I can do is run for office.”

Brenda added that his decision to run for office felt like a calling.

“I see this as another way to serve,” he said. “I’m not looking to climb the political ladder … I’ve always looked to do what I could do to help others.”

Urie said that taking to the streets with her fellow teachers was “an empowering feeling.” But for her, the statewide protests were never enough.

“You can do a lot of complaining on Facebook, you can do a lot of protesting, and that’s great, but I thought the best thing I can do is run for office.”