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Teacher Activism Played Prominent Role in Southern Governors’ Races

By Evie Blad — November 06, 2019 3 min read
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Education played a prominent role in several elections Tuesday, including governors’ races in Kentucky and Mississippi—testing the political muscle of teacher activists and yielding possible policy implications for everything from public employee pensions to teacher pay.

The most highest-profile example was the Kentucky governor’s contest, where Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, led Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in a tight race the Associated Press deemed too close to call Wednesday morning.

Beshear, the son of Bevin’s predecessor, had a former educator Jacqueline Coleman as a running mate and capitalized on public concern for teachers, who’d prominently sparred with Bevin after protesting his plans to reform the state’s pension plan.

“I want to thank our educators,” Beshear said in an acceptance speech Tuesday night, even as Bevin refused to concede. “To our educators, your courage to stand up and fight against all of the bullying and name calling helped galvanize our entire state. ... To our educators, this is your victory. From now on, the doors of your state capitol will always be open. We will treat each other with dignity and respect, and we will honor our commitments to our public servants.”

Off-year gubernatorial elections are often viewed as bellwethers for the larger numbers of races on presidential election years. Following outbursts of teacher activism throughout the country, Kentucky may have shown how those demonstrations could affect voters’ leanings.

Bevin ran on the state’s economy and ties to President Donald Trump, seeking to frame the race around national politics and social issues. But, while Kentucky has trended red—including in contests other than the governor’s race on Tuesday—voters have a history of cutting across traditional political lines.

Kentucky’s public-employee pension system had been deemed by Standard & Poor’s as the worst-funded in the nation. Teachers, not eligible for Social Security, were concerned that the state wouldn’t honor its obligations. Bevin signed a pension-reform bill that legislators had tacked onto an unrelated measure shortly before it passed, and Beshear later successfully challenged the move in court as attorney general. Beshear has proposed backfilling the pension system through funds generated by taxes on gambling and through legalizing marijuana.

One of the founders of 120 Strong, a group of teachers that mobilized in every county in the Bluegrass State, reacted to the results Tuesday night.

In Mississippi, where teachers have also demonstrated over education issues, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in a race to replace term-limited Gov. Phil Bryant. In education, the two offered differing visions for developing, attracting, and retaining teachers.

Mississippi lawmakers proposed teachers’ raises up to $4,000 last year before eventually approving a $1,500 increase, the Clarion Ledger reported.

Reeves’ education plan called for gradually raising Mississippi teachers salaries by about $4,200 over four years to meet the regional average. He also called for bonuses for teachers in high-needs areas. Hood’s plan called for more immediate, broader changes, including an additional $3,000 in teacher raises.

Up next, Louisiana voters head to the polls Nov. 16 for a runoff in their governor’s race, pitting Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards against challenger Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman. Edwards has criticized state education chief John White and his approach to school improvement and accountability.