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Tuesday's Election in Kentucky Will Test How Many Teachers Remembered in November

Lisa Autry

“Remember in November” became the rallying cry this year among many Kentucky teachers, highlighting their deep rift with Governor Matt Bevin over pension reform and education proposals. A number of those teachers have been stepping up their activism to help elect Bevin’s Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, on Nov. 5

Chris McCoy is one of them. He's been on a mission to make Matt Bevin a one-term governor, knocking on doors since July for Gov. Bevin’s Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear.

“I’ve been in the education field for 15 years and I’ve never seen teachers get this excited over an election," McCoy told WKU Public Radio.

McCoy teaches at Jackson Academy in Bowling Green. On a Saturday morning earlier this month, he canvassed in the Briarwood subdivision.

“I’ve run into a couple of Republican teachers today, and I told them sometimes you have to put party politics aside and vote for the guy that’s going to be the best for educators," McCoy said.

McCoy is a member of the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement Systemand he’s worried about having a pension when he retires. He sees Beshear as the best candidate to protect the benefits already promised to educators. Bevin has maintained an adversarial relationship with many educators after proposing sweeping changes to their benefits in an effort to return their pension system to solvency. 

Some teachers also feel the Republican governor has made disparaging comments about them for protesting at the state Capitol during the legislative session, at one point describing them as drowning victims who need to be knocked out and dragged to shore. Laura Boswell, who was canvassing with McCoy, isn’t in the education field, but her mother was.

“She mentored so many young women.  She fed some of them whose parents weren’t there for them. She gave them rides to and from school," Boswell recalled. "She’ll never get a plaque anywhere for that, but that’s the point, she’s not special. Lots of teachers do that, and to act like they’re infesting the state Capitol, that’s a vast population with an effect on our children and you’re not listening to them.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Gov. Bevin spoke to the Bowling Green Noon Rotary Club in October.

Bevin has also accused teachers of throwing temper tantrums, being selfish, ignorant, and having a thug mentality. Educators fought back. Several retired teachers went on a statewide “Won’t Be Bullied by Bevin” tour. The group, spearheaded by the Kentucky Democratic Party, is working to elect Beshear in Tuesday’s election.

Among those on the tour is Dave Strode, a retired educator from Warren County.

“We’re tired of being intimidated, belittled, when educators are on the front line working with the most valuable resource in our state-our future, our children," said Strode.

Bevin has stated he regrets nothing he's said about educators, and that his comments have been taken out of context. 

The Republican incumbent also maintains he’s the only governor to fully fund the teacher’s retirement system. As for his opponent, Bevin is telling teachers to “choose wisely” at the polls. 

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Andy Beshear’s dad robbed $8 billion from the teachers’ pension plan," Bevin said during a recent appearance in Bowling Green. "That should concern people.”

Bevin accuses former Gov. Steve Beshear of taking money from the retirement system and spending it elsewhere in state government. 

Bevin also highlights that he’s the first governor to use 100% of lottery proceeds for education.

“And I’m also putting more money per pupil into the classroom in the SEEK formula than in the history of this state," said Bevin. "Not only more per pupil, but more absolute dollars than ever before in the history of this state is going to public education.”

Credit Lisa Autry

While Bevin has called out his opponent for sending his children to private school, Beshear has built his campaign around courting public school teachers, embarking on his own “Stop the Bullying” tour.  During a visit to Bowling Green, Beshear called teachers “selfless public servants.”

“I believe that leadership is about leading for every family and understanding that just because someone disagrees with you, doesn’t make them your enemy. It’s time we have a governor that acts like an adult.”

Beshear tapped Jacqueline Coleman, a former high school assistant principal, to be his running mate. If elected, Beshear has promised $2,000 across-the-board pay raises for teachers, and pledged to establish a student loan forgiveness program for educators. Bevin has criticized him for not offering specifics on how he would pay for proposals. 

In a governor’s race that’s become personal, teachers are working to excite Democratic voters, and most importantly, get them to the polls. Brenda McGown of Warren County heads the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association. 

“We do have retired teachers working at the local campaign headquarters, making phone calls, sending emails," said McGown. "We want to make sure that people who want to vote have the ability. We’ll offer to pick people up and take them, we’ll do whatever we can to get people to the polls. After all, our current governor was elected with 18 percent of the registered voters in Kentucky. That’s no mandate.”

But will the teachers’ activism be enough to deliver a Democratic governor in a state where 62.5% of voters supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election? The big test is Tuesday, Nov. 5, when Kentuckians cast their ballots.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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