Did teachers flunk on Nov. 6? Teachers and others say no.

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Teacher ire over the Republican pension bill was supposed to trigger a big Democratic wave last week.

The tsunami was a trickle. But don't blame teacher apathy, said Abigail Barnes a Kentucky Education Association-backed state House hopeful who lost.

A Paducah attorney who lives in Salem, Barnes disagrees with any notion that Democrats failed to dent GOP supermajorities in the legislature "because the teachers didn't get out and vote.

"Teachers did what they needed to do. They just weren't supported by their fellow citizens."

That's not exactly the emerging media narrative.  

'"We'll remember in November' rang hollow on Election Day," Tom Loftus wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The story was headlined, "Teachers get failing grade on election day." 

Added Loftus: "The threatening chant by teachers and demonstrators against Republican majorities as they passed pension legislation last spring failed to carry over. On Tuesday, the GOP held on to supermajorities in both the Kentucky House and Senate."

"Republicans worried the vote would haunt them in November," wrote Adam Beam of the Associated Press. "But...there was no teacher backlash at the polls. Of the 49 Republican legislators who voted for the bill and ran for re-election, four of them lost.

"...Eight lawmakers — including five Republicans — who voted against the pension bill were defeated or are trailing in either the primary or general election." 

The GOP boosted its Senate majority by one, to 28-10. The Democrats managed to whittle the Republic House edge by only 2 seats, to 61-39.

Steven Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist, said the protests didn't reflect the election outcome because SB 151, the Republican pension bill that ultimately passed, “did very little to the retirement package for people who already were retired or who were in the system."

He added, “It’s really hard to sustain intensity for a movement like that especially when at root the teachers already won.” 

Retired Murray teacher Marshall Ward said SB 151 was anything but a triumph for teachers. "It's a defeat. It's divide-and-conquer."

"Current and retired teachers do not believe that SB 151 benefits them," said KEA President Stephanie Winkler. "They understand that it violates the state constitution and takes away defined benefits pensions for new hires. This will make it harder to attract and retain teachers and add to a critical teacher shortage statewide."

In another story, Loftus wrote that the bill puts future teachers "in a 401(k)-like ‘hybrid cash balance’ plan rather than the traditional pension plan with defined benefits. But it makes many, mostly modest, changes to the benefits of current public employees.”

The 401(k)-type plan undermines new teachers' "retirement security by making it dependent on the stock market, and yet it did essentially nothing to reduce the unfunded liability of the system," said Brent McKim, Jefferson County Teachers Association president.

"By the bill sponsor’s admission, the impact was less than one percent.  So the bill harms Kentucky’s competitiveness for attracting and keeping great teachers and for what?  It’s not worth it for essentially no impact on the pension debt.  The only way to address the unfunded liability is to make the full payments."

The state pension system, which includes other public employees such as police, firefighters and state workers, is at least $43 billion in debt, according to Loftus, who also wrote that the massive protests at the Capitol forced the Republicans to retreat on proposals that would have deeply slashed benefits. 

The day after Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, signed SB 151, Democratic Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, sued to overturn the bill in Franklin Circuit Court.

The KEA and the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police supported the court challenge by Beshear, who has since announced his candidacy for governor next year.

Beshear won the case, but the Bevin administration appealed. The bill's fate rests with the state Supreme Court.

SB 151 was a converted and unrelated sewer bill. Hence, Voss agreed that the optics were less than optimum for the GOP.  "If you look at the symbolism of a pension reform, such as it was, being put into a sewerage bill [it] looked really bad."  

Voss said the legislation ended up being "more about what future teachers would face." SB 151 “made it a lot harder to fire up all these people they’d originally whipped up to stop a more sweeping pension reform. Few things are more damaging to the long-term energy in a movement than victory."  

Ward, a KEA retiree, said the Republican framers of the bill "wanted retirees like me to think, 'Oh, they're taking care of us. Why should I care about the next generation of teachers?'"

Ward said eliminating defined pension benefits for new teachers "simply means that anything can be cut, changed and eliminated when it comes to pensions."

He said the prospect of going under a risky 401(k)-style plan is causing many college students to give up on a teaching career. "I have called Murray State and they told me they are already showing a decline in various education degree programs."

Ward doesn't pull punches. "If I hear one more person say that teachers' benefits need to be like the private sector, I'll go nuts.

"What benefits? The private sector CEOs have stolen dollars from the worker since 1972. Wages have been flat, pensions have been eliminated, and health care has become very expensive."

He says turning the sewer bill into a pension bill "symbolizes all the disrespect educators have endured since the Reagan years. The real story here is the future of teaching as a profession."

Beam also wrote that the election results have heartened some GOP House and Senate leaders who are urging Republican lawmakers to be bolder when the legislature reconvenes in January.

"My message to Republicans in this election is that you can take a tough vote on a controversial issue and run for re-election in a difficult environment and still win," Beame quoted Damon Thayer, the Senate GOP floor leader. "If you go out and run a good campaign and explain to people why you vote the way you voted, you're not going to get punished for it."

Meanwhile, Barnes, who plans to remain active in Democratic politics, said it's time to stop scapegoating teachers for her party's disappointing showing on Nov. 6.

"[Teachers have]...had enough of that. They're out on an island as much as we are."