Weeks after the teacher walkouts in Kentucky, educators scored a surprising victory: High school math teacher Travis Brenda defeated Jonathan Shell, the House majority floor leader, in the state primary election.
Brenda, who has never run for public office before, won the Republican nomination last week 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, leaving their classrooms and 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. Sixteen of them faced primaries last week, and of those, seven won their races. Four Republican incumbents in Kentucky faced a primary challenge from a teacher. Shell, who was the only GOP incumbent to lose his race against a teacher, was also the only one out of that group to vote for the pension bill.
“They picked on the wrong group,” Brenda said. “Not just the educators, but all state employees are rising up, and we’re not going to 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, said that he credits teacher support for his victory. He said it sends a message that teachers and other public employees won’t be silent.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teacher in Ky. Bounces Foe