Kentucky Teacher Responds to Pension Changes: The Teaching Profession Is ‘Under Attack’
"Ms. Dueñas! I’m coming with you!" For me, this is a familiar refrain. My student, Jack, often trails after me. When I start to walk away, saying he has to go to his class, I sense a child in need of reassurance following behind.
Jack is not alone in his daily need for individualized supports from a special educator. He is one of nearly 100 students I teach at Oldham County Middle School in Buckner, Ky., who require services beyond what traditional classroom teachers can provide. Jack can be exhausting, but as his special education teacher, I am his rock and foundation.
Each day, my colleagues and I work tirelessly for our high-needs population. I am overwhelmed with joy when students like Melissa light up and exclaim, "I got it!" after her fifth attempt at a math concept. It is these kinds of moments with our students that make us willing to swim in paperwork and work more than 60 hours a week.
But recent legal action could hinder our ability to do our work long term. Last week, Governor Matt Bevin signed into law Senate Bill 151, which takes away defined pension rights of any Kentucky public school teacher hired after July 1. A guaranteed pension had previously been part of teachers’ inviolable contract with the state. Senate Bill 151 effectively ends this contract for new hires, allowing lawmakers to continue adjusting retirement plans and other benefits in the future. New educators will have a hybrid retirement plan that is part pension and part 401(k).
The new law is problematic because our state’s teachers—the only state workers who do not buy into social security—relied on the former system as a means of financial security for retirement. The new legislation also states that current teachers will now have to use an additional 1 percent of their current annual pay for retiree health-care benefits.
Separately, the governor also vetoed a bill that increases education funding and vetoed the state budget, which provides $300 more in funding per student. Lawmakers later overrode the vetoes—a small sign of progress.
In recent weeks, teachers—myself included—have mobilized across the state. We shut down more than 20 districts throughout the state in sickouts, calling in sick en masse in order to rally at the state capitol on March 30 and April 13. From inside the building, legislators and senators in session could hear us chanting: "A pension is a promise!" and "We’ll remember in November!"
Teachers Initiate Call to Action
The teaching profession is under attack nationwide, as evidenced by this year’s teacher movements in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado. Each call to action is unique to its state’s needs. In Colorado, hundreds of teachers went to the state capitol earlier this week to demand salary increases and better retirement funds. After a statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia and a nine-day walkout in Oklahoma, educators there recently won pay raises and more education funding. Arizona’s teachers are voting about whether or not to strike this week. In my state, educators are asking for more education funding and not to lose their previously promised benefits.
Differences aside, what these movements show is that teachers nationwide have increasingly needed to rally together to command the attention and respect of lawmakers around their most basic needs. What’s more, according to NPR, Kentucky is among 49 states that report a shortage of special education teachers. With the U.S. Department of Labor predicting the need for special educators to go up 8 percent nationwide between now and 2026, it is imperative that special education teachers across the country feel motivated to stay in education and that college-age students look to the special education field as a viable career option.
As an educator who hosts student teachers from the University of Louisville in my classroom, I am well aware that Kentucky’s bill does not spell security for them, neither does it ensure they will want to join us. By playing hard and fast with the funding that will affect special educators’ futures, our representatives are certainly not setting the profession up to look more attractive.
Benefits Are a 'Due Right'
Since the bill's passage, I have grappled with many difficult questions. I have asked myself if I need to leave a profession I love because lawmakers don't have my best interests in mind. I wonder if I will need to take my skill set to another state. But in the midst of this pondering, I will continue to show up every day and give Jack and his classmates my best.
I am deeply disappointed by the lawmakers in every state who have chosen to make mockery of the critical work occurring in our schools. Their actions show they do not deem educators worthy of benefits or pay that should be their due right. In Kentucky’s case, the governor did not ensure that the state has planned accurately for the needs of Kentucky’s future—its children. I believe we are set to create an exodus of teachers and push new ones away.
We need to continue speaking up, writing and calling our representatives, and making our voices heard. I do not only mean teachers. Administrators, families, and anyone in our communities who is involved in the raising of our nation’s children or has ever been touched by a teacher should also take a stand, whatever the issue may be, for those in the classroom.
If we do not keep our teachers and fail to recruit new educators, who will be left to do the critical work in our nations' schools?