What Drives the Anger of Kentucky’s Education Establishment?

I submitted a brief commentary to several of Kentucky’s public radio stations on the teacher protests and subsequent political activity. So far, no takers. The audio is here. The text is below. Please forgive textual errors. This was written to be read aloud. You radio people know what I’m saying, right? Enjoy.

Teachers are angry at state government. So many teachers feigned illness in order to protest that many districts had to close on multiple days. Many teachers are now running for office. But why are they so angry? And more importantly, how justified is that anger? “A pension is a promise,” is the slogan so visible at teacher protests. The slogan is, at the very least, seriously misplaced. After all, lawmakers left pensions for current teachers and retirees virtually untouched. It’s safe to say that the crude rhetoric aimed at the governor and lawmakers is NOT over a nonexistent change.

So what’s driving it? Teachers seem to be angry about three things: Reforms to Kentucky pensions adopted by the General Assembly and Governor Bevin, cuts to public sector spending, and a third thing that I’ll get to later.

First, pensions …

Teachers say they’re upset about two things with regard to pensions. The first is the way lawmakers did reform. I agree almost entirely. Late-night legislating included using another bill as a vehicle for some substantial, but let’s face it, overdue, pension changes. The tactics, separate from the substance, should strike everyone as a bit underhanded. The lack of transparency in the reform is the most reasonable source of outrage among teachers.

But I suspect transparency isn’t what this is about …

Teachers also say they’re upset about the reform as applied to future pension beneficiaries. They say the changes will make it harder for Kentucky’s public schools to attract and keep good teachers.

That claim is silly.

Data adjusted for cost of living and reported by National Public Radio in March shows that the average Kentucky school teacher earns more than the average teacher in 42 of the other 49 states. That same average teacher also earns more than the average Kentucky household. If you’re going to be a teacher, Kentucky is one of the best places to do it.

But I doubt that concern about future teachers is the real source of anger among Kentucky’s education establishment.

So, how about spending cuts …

Yes, K-12 education spending as a share of Kentucky’s GDP has been in decline since 2009, but that’s also true for the rest of the country. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2014 Kentucky devoted 7% more of its available resources to K-12 education than the nation as a whole. That’s a big difference.

But I suspect the real reason Kentucky teachers are so apprehensive about change … is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could be handed down at any time: Janus v. AFSCME.

Janus is Mark Janus, a child-support specialist working for the government in Illinois. AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Janus’s labor union.

Mr. Janus wants nothing to do with the union. He wants to opt out of the chunk of his paycheck he must fork over for union activities, political or otherwise.

If the Supreme Court goes for Mr. Janus’s claims, public sector unions might never be able to compel contributions from government workers ever again.

It’s a basic First Amendment issue of free association, and being able to decide what causes your money supports.

So this anger, these protests, the teachers running for office, may just be the last hurrah for public sector unions and their waning political power. For Kentucky taxpayers who will pay for the past mismanagement of pensions, and Kentucky parents, who have been languishing in an education system that has consistently opposed even a little educational freedom, this change is overdue, as well.

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