FRANKFORT, KY. — At the beginning of 2017, Cathy Carter was a public school teacher with no plans to retire. A year later, she’s wrapping up her career to do something she never thought she would: Run for elected office.
Carter is one of at least 28 current and former educators running for a seat in the Kentucky legislature, a body that currently has five teachers out of 138 members. The part-time position requires members to be in the state Capitol for roughly half of the school year, making it difficult for current teachers to run.
“I’ve been an educator here all my life in Kentucky. This is the highest number in one year, ever. I mean it’s an historic number,” said David Allen, the former president of the Kentucky Education Association who has been tracking a list of teachers running for office.
As the midterm elections draw near, the focus nationally is on Democrats’ recruiting military veterans in their hopes to use a potential backlash against President Donald Trump to return to power in Washington. But in Kentucky, Democrats appear to be turning to teachers in their effort to win back control of the state House of Representatives, which they lost in 2016 for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Of the at least 28 current and former educators who have filed to run for office, 22 are Democrats. The list includes teachers and administrators both active and retired. There are college professors, high school and elementary teachers, academic librarians and coaches. And the list grows every day.
In interviews, most candidates identified three things that motivated them to run: opposition to a new law that allows charter schools for the first time, concern about proposed changes to the Kentucky Teachers Retirement system and, for some, perceived slights from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
“I didn’t even plan on retiring this year,” said Carter, who filed for office this week and intends to retire in March. “It just went through my soul that a governor would attack teachers. I just didn’t understand it.”
Bevin, now in his third year as governor, has aggressively lobbied for changes to the state’s woefully underfunded public pension system. A bill he and other GOP leaders proposed last fall would have capped benefits for teachers at 27 years of service, imposed a 3 percent pay cut and frozen annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers for five years.
Bevin has publicly accused state workers of “hoarding sick days” to boost their monthly retirement checks. Since only teachers can use sick days for that purpose, many have interpreted Bevin’s comments as an attack on their profession. Bevin has said his comments were not targeted toward teachers. Representatives from Bevin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“(Teachers) are being told that they are not going to get what they’ve been promised. And it’s a slap in the face of those educators who obviously did not make a lot of money,” said Denise Gray, a teacher at Crawford Middle School in Lexington who is running for a seat in the state Senate.
One of the few Republicans is David Graham, the band director at Warren Central High School. He says he is running because he wants to help the state get beyond crisis-driven politics that “lurch from one shortfall to the next.”
He supports charter schools, but only to fill educational gaps in a school district. He says state officials must make changes to the pension system, but says any changes must be fair and preserve benefits for people already in the system.
“I think the governor’s heart is in the right place most of the time, but certainly his rhetoric has made accomplishing some of his goals more challenging,” Graham said. “Part of the reason I’m running is to just help get things done. And to restore a measure of civility to our legislative process.”
Joy Gray, a retired teacher in Owensboro who is running for the House of Representatives as a Democrat, said if charter schools become widespread it would hurt public schools, which would hurt the state’s ability to convince businesses to come to Kentucky.
“We’ve never had a seat at the table,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re fighting against and saying. We want a seat at the table to make the decisions that are best for the students.”
The primary elections are May 22. The general election is Nov. 6.