Teaching Profession

Math Teacher Unseats Ky. House Leader Who Spearheaded Pension Changes

By Madeline Will — May 23, 2018 1 min read
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Weeks after the teacher walkouts in Kentucky, educators scored a surprising victory: High school math teacher Travis Brenda defeated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the state primary election.

Brenda, who has never run for public office before, won the Republican nomination last night against Shell, who had co-authored the bill that made controversial changes to the state’s public pension system that covers teachers. The rushed passage of the bill, which moves new teachers to a hybrid pension plan, enraged educators across the state. They stormed the capitol several times this legislative session, forcing dozens of schools to close.

In the wake of the widespread activism this spring, teachers across the country have been filing to run for office. Forty current or former Kentucky educators filed to run for office this year, the Associated Press reported. Sixteen of them had primaries on Tuesday, and of those, seven won or were leading their races, according to the AP’s latest report. Four Republican incumbents in Kentucky faced a primary challenge from a teacher. Shell, who was the only GOP incumbent to lose his race, was also the only one to vote for the pension bill.

“They picked on the wrong group,” Brenda told the AP. “Not just the educators, but all state employees are rising up, and we’re not going to be let things be done to us.”

Educators in other states are hoping to capitalize on the momentum generated by the series of walkouts, strikes, and protests in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia this spring. In West Virginia, where teachers went on strike for nine days, an incumbent Republican state senator who was accused of saying “nasty” things about teachers and introducing bills that didn’t have teachers’ best interests in mind lost his primary race earlier this month.

Brenda, who has been teaching for 20 years and is a fourth-generation farmer, told the AP that he credits teacher support for his victory. He said it sends a message that teachers and other public employees won’t be silent.

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Image: Travis Brenda, a teacher at Rockcastle County High School in Mount Vernon, Ky., speaks during an interview earlier this month. —Wade Payne/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.