FRANKFORT -- Kentucky teachers say they feel betrayed by Republican lawmakers who slipped changes to future pension benefits into an unrelated bill, then hastily passed it in the House and Senate on a party-line vote.
“I feel like they completely turned their back on teachers and the students,” said Angie Rush, a teacher at Barren County High School. “I’m questioning whether I should ever have gone into education.”
Discontent among teachers has resulted in a surge of protest rallies over pay and benefits around the country. West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent salary increase in early March after striking for nine days. Oklahoma teachers have threatened to walk out of their classrooms on Monday, and Arizona teachers say they may do likewise if lawmakers ignore their plea for higher pay.
The teacher pension changes in Kentucky were added to a wastewater services bill during a committee hearing Thursday. A few hours later it won approval in both chambers of the Republican majority legislature. No Democrat supported it.
The changes do not include those provisions that caused scores of teacher protesters to assemble at the Kentucky statehouse in mid-March – provisions such as reducing the annual cost-of-living increases for retired teachers and adding to the time teachers must work to become eligible for full retirement benefits.
The bill does modify the traditional defined benefits pension plan for newly hired teachers with a combination of fewer such benefits and contributions from a portion of teacher wages that would go into a 401 (k) style savings plan. The bill also limits sick leave payments at the time of retirement to the amount accrued and not used as of Dec. 31, 20oes 18.
It now goes to the Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who has indicated he will sign it into law.
Sponsors of the legislation said it takes some financial pressure off the state’s public retirement system, which has $43 billion in unfunded liabilities and in danger of collapsing. They insisted the plan balances teacher concerns with those of taxpayers.
Teachers see it otherwise. They said the pension changes for future hires will discourage young people from going into teaching, a career choice that is already challenged by low salaries.
Rush said it is not just teachers who feel wronged; that her students don’t understand why lawmakers want to limit pensions for teachers hired in the future. “They are concerned because they see the ramifications on their educations and their futures,” she said.
Deana Flannery teaches at Clark Moores Middle school in Richmond, Kentucky. She held a poster at a state capitol protest in Frankfort on Friday with a photo of the head of her state senator, Republican Jared Carpenter, superimposed on the body of a man wearing a toga and bearing this caption: Et tu Carpenter?
“I feel like he betrayed us just like Brutus betrayed Caesar,” said Flannery. “He told Madison County teachers he would support us.”
Ronnie Ellis is the CNHI Kentucky state reporter in Frankfort. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.