LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – One describes himself as a liberal Democrat. The other is a pro-life, pro-gun conservative.

While their political philosophies differ, both agree on one point: They see a threat to the public education system in Kentucky.

“I never planned on running for office,” said Matt Kaufmann, an English teacher at Moore Traditional High School and Middle School in Louisville and one of two Democrats vying for the chance to unseat Republican Sen. Ernie Harris of Prospect in November. “At this point I feel like I have to.”

“It seems like there’s been an all-out attack this year on public education,” said Ohio County Schools Superintendent Scott Lewis, one of two Republicans running for the open seat in the 14th House District. “For several years our budgets have been getting cut. Teachers haven’t had raises. It’s not like it’s just happened overnight, but for this year, I think with the governor’s rhetoric and how that started back and forth, that’s what has teachers so upset.”

Kaufmann and Lewis are among 46 teachers, school administrators, professors and retired educators hoping to join the Kentucky General Assembly after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Kaufmann said his interest in politics goes back to the 2016 presidential campaign, when, he said, some of his Hispanic students told him that they’d been taunted in public based on then-candidate Donald Trump’s pledge to build a border wall.

Lewis decided to launch a campaign after dealing with consistent funding cuts in his 12 years as superintendent and seeing a pension reform proposal late last year that would have altered retirement payouts for current, retired and future educators.

Both said legislation passed last year to legalize charter schools, which they oppose, also prompted them to run for office.

Thirty challengers with education backgrounds are already on the ballot for the Nov. 6 elections. Sixteen candidates, including Kaufmann, hope to join them after the May 22 primaries. Of those with education backgrounds running for seats in the House or Senate this fall, 31 are Democrats, 10 are Republicans and five are write-in candidates.

That number, according to a list compiled by former Kentucky Education Association President David Allen, could be a record for educators vying for seats in the state legislature.

“I think it’s unprecedented in Kentucky history to have this number of educators seeking an office,” Allen said. “It’s historic.”

Crowds of teachers and education advocates, twice estimated by unions at more than 10,000, swarmed the Capitol grounds earlier this month as lawmakers crafted legislation that many fear will hurt the future of the teaching profession in Kentucky.

Those educators hoping to join the General Assembly are banking on that energy propelling them to public office this fall.

‘Remember in November’

Chants echoed off the marble floors of the Capitol as hundreds of teachers and advocates rallied outside the House and Senate chambers in the closing days of this year’s legislation session, when lawmakers passed budget and tax bills before overriding vetoes by Gov. Matt Bevin on both.

Dozens of school districts closed on March 30, April 2 and April 13 either because enough teachers called in sick to cancel classes or to accommodate teachers who wanted to travel to Frankfort.

Several slogans were repeated throughout the demonstrations, but one was a direct threat to incumbent lawmakers, most of them Republicans: “We will remember in November.”

After lawmakers overrode his vetoes on April 13, Bevin fanned the flames by saying that some children left unattended at home because schools closed that day were sexually assaulted, poisoned or experimented with drugs.

The Republican-led House passed a resolution condemning the governor’s comments, and Bevin later apologized for offending those who found his comments distasteful but defended his central message that closing schools exposed some children left home alone to harm.

“Have I compounded the issue by saying things that have been misunderstood and sometimes saying things that in hindsight I should have used different language? Absolutely I have, and that’s entirely my responsibility,” Bevin said during a news conference last week. “And I take that responsibility.”

With so many education-oriented Democrats on the ballot, expect Bevin’s remarks to come up on the campaign trail this year. Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in nearly a century in the 2016 elections.

“Since education is under attack, I do feel like I have to call out the people that are attacking it because an attack on education is an attack on all of us,” Kaufmann said. “It’s an attack on democracy. I do not want that to be the central message of my campaign. The central message that I want is that it is more important than ever to have public educators in office right now.”

Lewis, a Republican, has also sought to distance himself from some of Bevin’s comments on the campaign trail. It’s a topic that’s come up in a recent debate, and he said he didn’t condone the Republican governor’s remarks on protesting teachers.

“As a leader at any level, your job is to pull people together, not tear them apart,” Lewis said. “Any time your words are such that it affects that group of people or whatever group of people, that’s not what we strive for as leaders, and honestly there’s no excuse for that.”

Bevin and Republican legislative leaders would dispute the notion that their policies are aimed at dismantling public education.

“We have a great story to tell to teachers for what we did this session – for bolstering and helping sustain their pension system, for the record levels of investment put in to education,” said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Republican lawmakers emphasized earlier this month that they had put the most money ever in basic state support for K-12 education, even raising taxes to do so. (While the state will spend a record $4,000 per student over the next two years, the amount is 16 percent less than in 2008 when adjusted for inflation, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy).

Bevin has also said his administration has pumped more money in public education that any previous governor, especially when considering state contributions to KTRS.

“No matter which way you slice it, no governor put as much or more money ever into any category,” Bevin said during Tuesday’s news conference. “… I’ve literally put more money into the pension system in the first two and a half years, in my first two budgets, than any governor in history, including the one who preceded me over eight years didn’t put as much in as I’ve put in in my first two budget. You would think these things would be appreciated.”

The pension reform bill that Republican leaders crammed through the legislative process at 11th hour mandates that General Assembly make full payments to the teachers’ pension system.

Watson noted that even the Jefferson County Teachers Association – which called on Bevin to veto the pension reform law – acknowledged that it would improve the funding status for KTRS.

The law, Senate Bill 151, also moves teachers hired in 2019 or later into a hybrid cash balance plan rather than the traditional defined-benefit pensions enjoyed by current teachers.

Watson played down the implications of Bevin’s controversial remarks about students being assaulted. He said Republican lawmakers’ personal connections with their voters will boost them in November. 

“You know these people,” Watson said. “You see them at the grocery store, you see them at the chamber of commerce, at rotary, picking your kids up from school, and so I think it’s very hard to tag the actions of one person to somebody that you know.”

Watson also noted that the two-year budget passed by the GOP-led legislature did not include funding for charter schools, an omission that should increase the party’s appeal to teachers.

While teachers will be a key audience for Republican messaging during the fall campaigns, Watson said other sectors of the electorate will like what they hear from the GOP this fall.

“2017 was historic for changes that were made in this state, and you saw it reflected in the economic development that the governor was able to bring in the state last year, over $9 billion pledged investments,” he said.

“… We’re seeing huge increases in employment participation rates. People who had given up hope looking for work are looking again because they know that jobs are on the way, and that’s all been done by legislation that this Republican-controlled General Assembly has passed.”

But Rep. Linda Belcher, a Shepherdsville Democrat and retired teacher, said she expects educators running for office will maintain the energy seen during this year’s legislative session on the campaign trail.

 “I think teachers are angry enough that it will continue, and I think they’ll get out and work, and that’s what you have to do” she said. “If you want to win, you get out and work and you share what your beliefs are, and I think their beliefs are what the regular people’s beliefs are.”

Balancing professional and legislative work

While lawmakers have all sorts of day jobs – doctors, lawyers, insurance agents – those in public education face practical challenges balancing their legislative service with time in the classroom.

That’s because the annual legislative sessions overlap with much of the spring semester.  The 30-day sessions held in odd years are more manageable because of lengthy breaks January and February, but the longer sessions held in even years typically run from early January to mid-April.

It’s a difficult juggling act, as Rep. Derrick Graham knows. When he won office in 2002, the Frankfort Democrat also taught at Frankfort High School, not far from the Capitol.

At first, he tried to do both jobs simultaneously, teaching in the mornings and scheduling his planning periods in the afternoon so he could be in the House as it gaveled in.

But that schedule didn’t last long. Graham said he took leaves of absences and had a long-term substitute in place during sessions.

Teachers who live close enough to Frankfort can teach full or half days on Mondays and on Friday afternoons giving the legislative schedule, although Graham said those from far-off areas may not be able to return to the classroom until sessions end.

“Most teachers are going to have to take a leave of absence,” Graham said.

Graham also said he bought back the pension service credits he missed while on leave so that he wouldn’t have to work longer to become eligible for his pension, something he would advise other teachers in the General Assembly to do.

Both Kaufmann and Lewis say they’ve received blessings from higher ups to seek public office, and Lewis says he has enough time in KTRS to retire if needed.

“Before I even announced I met with my board, and my board, with everything going on in Frankfort, they were very supportive of wanting me not only to run, but to win,” Lewis said.

Educators running to join the General Assembly, according to former KEA President David Allen

Kentucky House

2nd House District: Democrat Charlotte Goddard, elementary school teacher

6th House District: Democrat Linda Edwards, retired elementary school teacher

7th House District: Democrat Joy Gray. retired high school teacher

12th House District: Democrat Bruce Kunze, retired middle school teacher and counselor

13th House District: Democrat Jim Glenn, professor at Owensboro Community and Technical College

14th House District: Republican Scott Lewis, superintendent at Ohio County Schools

17th House District: Republican David Graham, band director

18th House District: Democrat Donielle Heron-Lovell, professor at Western Kentucky University

20th House District: Republican Todd Alcott, high school teacher

20th House District: Democrat Patti Minter, professor at WKU

23rd House District: Democrat LaToya Drake, middle school paraeducator

25th House District: Democrat Tom Williamson, retired high school teacher

26th House District: Scott Hrebicik (write-in candidate), high school teacher

29th House District: Democrat Ronel Brown Sr., high school paraeducator

31st House District: Democrat Josie Raymond, academic coach at University of Louisville and former middle school teacher

32nd House District: Democrat Tina Bojanowski, elementary teacher

35th House District: Democrat Lisa Willner, part-time psychology teacher at Bellarmine University

54th House District: Lydia Coffey (write-in candidate), retired middle school teacher

55th House District: Democrat Cathy Carter, middle school teacher

61st House District: Democrat Susan Back, high school counselor

62nd House District: Democrat Jenny Urie, high school teacher

63rd House District: Democrat Josh Blair, adjunct professor at Northern Kentucky University

69th House District: Democrat Ryan Neaves, middle school teacher

71st House District: Republican Travis Brenda, high school teacher

82nd House District: Republican Matt Anderson, high school teacher

84th House District: Democrat Tom Pope, retired high school teacher

85th House District: Mona Elridge (write-in candidate), middle school teacher

86th House District: Democrat Debbie Payne, retired elementary school teacher

87th House District: Democrat Dustin Allen, high school teacher

89th House District: Republican Keith Hays, high school principal

89th House District: Democrat Kelly Smith, academic librarian at Eastern Kentucky University

96th House District: Republican Chuck Clark, assistant principal

97th House District: Republican Russell Hasley, retired high school teacher and administrator

Kentucky Senate

6th Senate District: Democrat Crystal Chappell, middle school teacher

8th Senate District: Democrat Bob Glenn, professor at Owensboro Community and Technical College

12th Senate District: Democrat Paula Setser-Kissick, district resource teacher

16th Senate District: Nicole Lee Britton (write-in candidate), special education teacher

22nd Senate District: Democrat Carolyn Dupont, associate professor at EKU

26th Senate District: Democrat Matt Kaufmann, high school teacher

28th Senate District: Democrat Denise Gray, middle school paraeducator

30th Senate District: Democrat Paul Clemons-Combs, high school teacher

32nd Senate District: Democrat Jeanie Smith, middle school teacher

34th Senate District: Democrat Susan Haddix, retired high school teacher

38th Senate District: Andrew Bailey (write-in candidate), high school teacher

Other educators running for the General Assembly

35th House District: Republican Donna Lawlor, retired interpreter

46th House District: Republican Jim Stansbury, retired teacher

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.