Kentucky teachers push back against proposed pension cuts days after governor called them ‘selfish’

"We are unifying and we are going to vote them out."

Kentucky teachers protest against Senate Bill 1 at the state capitol in Frankfort on Monday, March 12, 2018. (Credit: Laura Hartke)
Kentucky teachers protest against Senate Bill 1 at the state capitol in Frankfort on Monday, March 12, 2018. (Credit: Laura Hartke)

Teachers from numerous Kentucky school districts are preparing to rally at the state capitol Wednesday to protect their pensions against proposed cuts, just one week after Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) blasted them as “selfish” and “ignorant.”

Several Eastern Kentucky school districts plan to close to accommodate teachers attending the rally, which is expected to draw hundreds of public school employees to Frankfort.

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Wednesday’s rally is the latest in the weeks-long fight against Senate Bill 1, a measure that would cut retired teachers’ yearly cost-of-living raises from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, an effort to save the state’s ailing pension system. The decrease would remain in effect until the Kentucky Teacher’s Retirement System is 90 percent funded and, as the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, it would result in a loss in income of more than $65,000 for the average teacher.

Kentucky has one of the worst funded pensions in the country, at nearly $40 billion in debt. As the Herald-Leader editorial board wrote last month, the pension debt has been a constant problem because “a succession of governors and legislatures chose to underfund them. They did this to avoid slashing education and other public services because revenue chronically falls short of its needs.”

“The money that we have paid into our pensions has been mismanaged … We’re fighting for what we’ve been promised,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress, adding that lawmakers “decided to cut our pensions, without even looking for other sources of revenue.”

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Gov. Bevin claims SB 1 will resolve the crisis, but teachers argue that the bill robs them of their hard-earned retirement funds to do it — a move that could be illegal, according to Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, who says the measure infringes upon the state’s inviolable contract with public employees, which protects retirement benefits from being reduced or altered.

In a radio interview last week, Bevin said teachers who oppose the measure are “selfish” and “ignorant” and compared them to unpatriotic Americans during World War II.

“This would be like people having mass demonstrations about, ‘No I want my butter, I want my sugar, I’m going to keep all my steel and my rubber and my copper, and to heck with the rest of you people, you better keep giving me mine,” he said.

Hartke, who has been a teacher for 11 years, said Bevin’s comments will likely end up hurting him in the long run.

“I think it was a really poor choice for the governor to mess with teachers,” she said, adding that the issue has opened her eyes to local politics. “We are unifying and we are going to vote them out.”

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Hartke said her school district has been supportive of the teachers, even making arrangements to send alternating groups of educators to the state capitol to rally every Tuesday and Thursday. At one such rally, Hartke tweeted to urge the legislature to keep its promise in funding teacher pensions:

“You have to take that outrage and use it to fight for what’s yours and make yourself a better teacher,” Hartke said.

On Saturday, Bevin took to Facebook to appeal to teachers and stress the importance of “structural changes” to the pension system.

“If we don’t make structural changes,” Bevin said, “that’s like putting water in a bucket with a hole in the bottom of it.”

But few were convinced with Bevin’s argument, and comments on the video have been largely negative.

One Facebook user wrote, “I am not asking for anything that I have not already put into a ‘savings’ account that I expected would be there when I needed it. So how about you stop denigrating the people that make all other professions (even those who go into politics) possible and start finding funding to pay the portion that was expected of the state.”