FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Thousands of Kentucky teachers hoisted signs and chanted “we love our children” on Friday as they called on legislators to reject the Republican governor’s vetoes and restore increases in education spending.
Classes were canceled around Kentucky as teachers descended on the Capitol, wearing red T-shirts and carrying signs that said “I love my public school.” The rally took on a festival-like atmosphere as teachers sat in lawn chairs or sprawled out on blankets. Crosby Stills, Nash and Young’s hit “Teach Your Children” bellowed out of loud speakers before speeches began.
“I don’t want to be out of my classroom. I want to be in my classroom instructing future citizens but I’m afraid that spending at the state level is getting worse and worse and we need those dollars for a 21st century education,” said Stephanie Ikanovic, who has been a teacher for 21 years.
Schools closed in Louisville, Lexington and more than 30 other districts to accommodate all the workers wanting to attend the rally in Frankfort. Other districts sent delegations but planned to keep classes open.
Lawmakers will convene Friday to consider the governor’s vetoes, and the votes in the Republican-controlled Legislature are expected to be close. Kentucky police said they might limit the number of teachers inside the state Capitol for safety reasons.
The unrest comes amid teacher protests in Oklahoma and Arizona over low funding and teacher pay. The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia teachers, whose nine-day walkout after many years without raises led to a 5 percent pay hike.
Kentucky teachers haven’t asked for a raise and they are instead focused on overall funding.
Middle school science teacher Leslie Atkins said several students came to her Thursday and asked if she was attending the rally “for us.”
“And they always said, ‘for us’ — even the kids understand that we’re not here for teachers, we’re here for them,” she said.
Earlier this month, thousands filled the Kentucky Capitol to oppose pension changes. They lost the pensions battle, but lawmakers responded with a budget plan that included record-high classroom spending. The Legislature also restored school transportation funding and health insurance for teachers who retired after 2010 but don’t yet qualify for Medicare.
Lawmakers approved a $480 million tax increase to pay for it, including a 6 percent sales tax on services such as auto and home repairs. But Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed the budget and revenue bills, saying the tax increase wouldn’t cover the spending and would instead lead to at least a $50 million shortfall over the next two years.
In Arizona, after weeks of teacher protests and walkout threats across the state, Gov. Doug Ducey promised a net 20 percent raise by 2020.
In Oklahoma, teachers ended two weeks of walkouts on Thursday, shifting their focus to electing pro-education candidates in November. Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation raising teacher salaries by about $6,100 and providing millions in new education funding, but many say schools need more money.
Kentucky’s lawmakers have struggled with the complexities of passing a two-year state budget, searching for education funding and trying to fix one of the country’s worst-funded pension systems. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, straining state and local government finances.
The Kentucky Education Association sharply criticized Bevin’s vetoes in calling for Friday’s “day of action.” Bevin barked back, calling union leaders “absolute frauds” who had not been clear in what they wanted.
Bevin further angered teachers by signing legislation altering pensions for teachers and other state employees. The changes preserve benefits for most workers, but move new hires into a hybrid plan. Opponents worry this will discourage young people from becoming teachers. The pension changes have already drawn a court challenge.
If lawmakers let the vetoes stand, Bevin could call them back into special session to pass a budget. Without one, state government would partially shut down when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.