FRANKFORT, Kentucky — On election night, long before his win in the Kentucky governor’s race became official, Democrat Andy Beshear made clear who he thought helped make it happen.
“To our educators, this is your victory,” Beshear proclaimed in a Nov., 5 victory speech as he maintained a slim 5,000-vote margin.
Now that Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has conceded, Beshear is moving quickly to translate the political activism of teachers that began in 2018 and persisted through this year’s election into tangible school improvements.
Teachers staged large demonstrations at Kentucky’s Capitol in Frankfort the past two years as part of a national wave of teacher activism. Many of the teachers who chanted “We’ll remember in November” during their statehouse protests in Kentucky later remobilized as part of a vast grassroots effort on Beshear’s behalf.
Beshear, who capitalized on the teachers’ feud with Bevin over pension and education policies, is starting work on his promises to educators as he prepares a budget plan to submit to the GOP-dominated legislature in early 2020. The cornerstone is a $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers — an incentive he said is needed to resolve a statewide teacher shortage.
“We are always going to lead with our values of public education, health care, good jobs that pay good wages and ensuring that we fully fund our pensions,” Beshear said Friday in outlining his budget plans for the coming year.
Lt. Gov.-elect Jacqueline Coleman, an educator, made a pitch for the teacher pay raise at the same Friday event, where Beshear announced transition teams.
“Our children deserve a top-notch education,” she said. “It’s time that our educators are treated with respect and, more appropriately, compensated for their dedication to our children.”
Education may be one area where Beshear can find common ground with Republicans, though it won’t be easy. Kentucky House Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney recently listed education as a top priority for House Republicans. As for Beshear’s proposed teacher pay raise, he said: “It’s easy to say that when you’re on the campaign trail, but the reality is you’ve got to be able to have the funds to pay for that. We would love to do that if we can.”
Beshear also has proposed shrinking class sizes, expanding preschool and increasing mental health services for children. He has acknowledged that sacrifices might have to be made elsewhere in the budget while promising that “we’re going to fund public education.”
On Friday, Beshear reiterated his intention to reshape the Kentucky Board of Education with new appointees.
Teachers vowed to support the push to make education “the ultimate priority” in Kentucky.
“This election isn’t the end of educator activism in Kentucky,” Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell said Thursday after Bevin conceded to Beshear. “It’s just the beginning.”
Michelle Gambill, an eighth-grade teacher in eastern Kentucky, said Friday that Bevin’s “harsh tones and rude words” turned teachers and other public employees against him.
“I think a lot of the election was ‘anybody but Bevin,’” said Gambill, who voted for Bevin four years ago but backed Beshear in last week’s election.
David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, said teachers were vital to Beshear’s victory.
“The key thing that Matt Bevin never seemed to understand is that when he attacked teachers, it was not just an attack on them; it was an attack on the communities in which they serve,” he said.
Teacher activism swelled when Bevin and Republican lawmakers tried to overhaul public pension systems. That led to a showdown between Bevin and Beshear, who as attorney general filed a lawsuit that led Kentucky’s Supreme Court to strike down a Bevin-supported pension law.
When Bevin’s administration sought educators’ records to investigate them for missing school to attend rallies, Beshear sued to try to block the subpoenas.
Beshear said on election night that the teachers’ activism won’t be forgotten.
“Your courage to stand up and fight against all the bullying and name-calling helped galvanize our entire state,” he said.