A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: It’s time to dial down the rhetoric and find a real pension reform solution

The most important job I ever had was teaching English and Social Studies in junior high school because every single day offered a long-term opportunity to make a difference in a young person’s life. Short-term, payback was less rosy. Daily challenges included dealing with administrivia, adolescent meltdowns, and parental ennui.

Critics carped about summer vacations and seasonal holidays, insisting they could do the job better without any preparation or training. “Give me one day in the classroom,” they were wont to say, “and those kids wouldn’t dare act up.”

I left public school teaching with no regrets, when a promising position with AT&T presented itself, but I still look back on my first career with pride. I remember the names of many of my students, and am honored to be in touch with some of them on social media.

My belief in public education as the foundation of a sound democracy has never diminished, so I was pleased to move to Kentucky at the same time the commonwealth launched a program for education reform.

Since KERA, public education in Kentucky has aimed to remain rigorous, relevant, and responsive to the changing needs of a world-wide economy. While legislative mandates frequently went unfunded, expectations and demands on teachers increased. At the same time, the teachers’ pension fund was being systematically raided by politicians who promised it would all work out in the long run. 

They were dead wrong.

Matt Bevin was elected governor in 2015 with a platform that included fixing pensions before the whole system collapsed. Sadly, the tone of discussion frequently disparaged teachers. Last week in a radio interview on WVLC, for instance, the governor accused teachers of being, “remarkably selfish and short-sighted.” Adding insult to verbal injury, he said teachers were “remarkably uninformed” regarding proposed pension legislation, and that “you can’t win an argument with an ignorant person.”

In short, if teachers cannot handle the consequences of Governor Bevin’s proposed pension fix, “They should have another profession,” he declared.

This past weekend, perhaps reflecting a change of heart or at least dialing down the rhetoric, the governor took to social media to urge Kentuckians to tell their legislators to pass pension reform. He even admitted to having “tremendous respect” for teachers, but by Monday, the tide had turned again.

At a public meeting in Murray, Ky., the governor suggested that teachers who don’t like the pension situation might move to another state. (Kentucky, he pointed out, is one of 15 states where public employees are not eligible for Social Security benefits.)

He also questioned whether the teachers understood the concept of a “balanced budget” and explained how managing state finances was tough, “If you only have one dollar and you have two dollars worth of needs.”

Really, Governor Bevin?  

According to the Kentucky Department of Education website, there are 42,146 public school teachers statewide, with average teaching experience at 11 years and 9 months. The overwhelming majority – 78% — are female, many of them now heads of households.

So here we are, more than halfway through Women’s History Month, and the bully pulpit does not appear to be working. As the governor pointed out, we cannot afford to give up. We might, however, take this opportunity to get down to business and figure out the pension mess.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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