In a year marked by waves of teacher activism around the country, it wasn’t unusual for elected officials to take issue with teachers calling in sick, walking out of classrooms, or holding multiday strikes. What was unusual was the personal and inflammatory tone of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s comments.
When a Rotary Club member asked the Republican, who is running for re-election, what should be done to stem gun violence, he brought up a 7-year-old girl who was accidentally shot in March.
The girl was home that day after school was canceled when teachers called in sick with “pension flu” to protest proposed changes to the state’s public-employee retirement system—something they had done several times before last year, Bevin suggested in April.
“One thing you almost didn’t hear anything about while we had people pretending to be sick when they weren’t sick and leaving kids unattended to or in situations that they should not have been in—a little girl was shot, 7 years old, by another kid,” he said.
It was a prelude to a governor’s race where educators, the public’s support of them—and the incumbent’s polarizing statements—have had an outsized influence. In November, Bevin faces Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who has an educator as his running mate and has challenged Bevin in court over several education-related issues, including one that led to a stinging defeat for Beshear last week.
Bevin’s supporters and critics both agree that the governor’s direct and provocative comments are characteristic of the state leader. In 2018, when schools also closed for teacher activism, he suggested that an unattended student might be sexually assaulted. He later apologized, but the comment was locked in the minds of Kentucky teachers, who were already sparring with the governor over such issues as charter schools and pensions.
“When Donald Trump talks about the ‘failing New York Times,’ that’s something far away that doesn’t affect us,” said Jeni Bolander, a high school teacher in Lexington. “But when Matt Bevin blames teachers for kids getting sexually assaulted, that’s someone’s friends and neighbors.”
Bolander helps organize teachers in her region of the state for 120 Strong, a group of educators that formed to protest proposed pension changes and is named for its presence in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties. In the buildup to the governor’s race, the group is fanning out to help plant campaign signs and knock on doors in support of Beshear.
The contest is one of three governor’s races this fall—in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi—followed by 11 gubernatorial elections in 2020. Politics watchers often look to odd-year elections for clues about what might happen in larger contests the next year.
In this case, Kentucky observers say, the question is whether the political might the teachers demonstrated in the pension fight will be enough to deliver a Democratic governor in a state where 62.5 percent of voters supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Bevin was first elected in 2015—replacing term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, his current opponent’s father—and pundits later said his win should have been seen as a forerunner to Trump’s largely unexpected victory. Both men are known for tough talk and aggressive plans to remake the governments they lead. Bevin’s campaign website features multiple photos of the governor interacting with the president, and Trump tweeted support for the governor on the day of the May primary.
Like many southern states, Kentucky has trended red in recent years. The unemployment rate has also dropped during Bevin’s term, which is usually a strong indicator that an incumbent will be re-elected. Despite the factors working in his favor, Bevin was rated as the least-popular governor in the country in an April comparison of state-level polls released by Morning Consult in April. Thirty-three percent of Kentucky voters surveyed approved of the governor’s performance, and 52 percent disapproved.
“I believe most Kentuckians agree with him on the vast majority of his policies, including education policies. Where they disagree with him is on the rhetoric,” said Les Fugate, a Republican political consultant in the state. “You can believe that changes are needed in the pension system and not address it the way he addressed it.”
Teachers called in sick en masse in 2018 and again this year to protest proposed changes to the state’s public-employee pension system, which had been cited by Standard & Poor’s as the worst-funded in the nation. Kentucky educators are not eligible for Social Security, and many were concerned that the state wouldn’t honor its obligations. The Republican-controlled legislature failed to pass bills that would have cut cost-of-living adjustments to help stem the crisis.
Beshear successfully sued after Bevin signed a pension-reform bill that legislators had tacked onto an unrelated measure shortly before it passed.
But last week the state supreme court unanimously rejected Beshear’s lawsuit over the governor’s sweeping reorganization in 2017 of boards and committees overseeing public education. Bevin, in a statement, denounced what he called “politically motivated lawsuits” and accused his rival of “a shameful waste of taxpayer resources.” Beshear said the ruling means “the governor can dissolve and purge the members of the Board of Education any time he disagrees with their decisions.”
Beshear also won favor with teachers when he sued to block Bevin from subpoenaing school districts for names of teachers who’d participated in sickouts. His running mate is Jacqueline Coleman, an assistant high school principal.
“This race is not about what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” Beshear told supporters when he won the primary. “It’s not about right versus left. Folks, it’s about right versus wrong.”
Beshear has proposed funding the pension system with revenue generated by legalizing and taxing gambling and marijuana.
Bevin supporters note that Beshear’s father missed a chance to stabilize the pension system.
Stephanie Winkler, the outgoing president of the Kentucky Education Association, said that’s because the elder Beshear’s term overlapped with the 2008 financial crisis. Bevin’s plans to fully fund the pension system have come at a cost, she said, adding that his comments about teachers threatened to diminish public trust in the profession.
Bevin, whose running mate is Ralph Alvarado, a doctor and state lawmaker, counts among his supporters Vice President Mike Pence, who visited in March to campaign for him in the primary.
“He’s delivered on the promises he made to the people of Kentucky,” Pence said.
Pence noted that per-pupil education funding had risen to an all-time high during Bevin’s first term, a claim repeated on Bevin’s website. He didn’t mention that situation occurred after lawmakers, under pressure from teachers, overrode Bevin’s veto of a budget bill.
In addition to touting his pension reforms, Bevin’s website notes that he “supports school choice.” The governor signed a bill clearing the way for charter schools in the state, though it came without a funding mechanism. And he met with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as she pitched a plan for tax-credit scholarships for private schools.
Beshear’s platform notes that he supports “strong public education” but does not outline specific policy proposals.
“Usually, education policy is the area that all of the candidates like to say nice things about but doesn’t rise up to a level of controversy that voters are really motivated by it,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “Here we’ve got candidates setting up stark difference in the direction they’d like education to go, so voters have a rare choice.”
That divide has motivated groups like 120 Strong, but some have questioned whether that energy, and the group’s wide geographic reach, will translate into results, said Danny Briscoe, a Kentucky Democratic political consultant.
The group was also active in the 2018 election, in which Republicans maintained control of both chambers of the state legislature, picking up a seat in the Senate and losing one in the House.
“It didn’t look like the teachers did what people thought they might do,” Briscoe said. “They made their case, but they didn’t make a showing at the ballot box.”
Bolander rejected that critique. Some of the candidates the group supported were Republicans, she said, adding that public-employee benefits shouldn’t be seen as a partisan issue.
Among the candidates, voters elected two Republican educators, including math teacher Travis Brenda, who unseated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, the lawmaker who proposed the controversial pension changes.
“That was 100 percent due to the hard work of teachers canvassing and going door-to-door,” Bolander said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teacher Tensions Fuel Ky. Governor’s Race