We’re Still Here: Kentucky Teachers React to the 2018 Midterm Elections

It’s been a month since the 2018 midterm elections humbled Kentucky’s #RememberInNovember crowd, but with the newly-elected General Assembly beginning their session next month, you may think that Kentucky teachers are still licking their wounds.

It couldn’t have been a more personal loss. Angered by a controversial pension overhaul bill and a Governor’s uncanny remarks, many Kentucky teachers thought they had become a political force to be reckoned with. Now, it appears they were mistaken. 51 Kentucky educators made the ballot; 37 lost.

I wanted to get a better understanding of exactly what happened last month, so I reached out to teachers from across the Commonwealth to gauge their reactions to the recent elections. Here’s what I learned.

Teachers Still Feel Disrespected

Kelly Melton, a curriculum coordinator from Muhlenberg County, shared these concerns. “Many politicians only care about education in May and November. It’s an emotional ploy during election time. However, they quickly forget once they are announced as the winner. Name calling, fund cutting, program slashing, and rudeness comes into play after the win, that’s when we see the true person. All are not like that, but it seems those types of elected officials are growing in numbers. It saddens me to know that what I’ve dedicated my life’s work to has become so unimportant.”

Debbie Cartwright Teets, a teacher from Mercer County, echoed those remarks: “I am disheartened, truly concerned about the future of public education. Based on results, it appears that the public majority is not behind us.”

“Where were the teachers?” asked Betsy Grise, a teacher from eastern Kentucky. “I believed them. I thought they’d be there to vote in their own favor, and mine, but they didn’t. Totally disillusioned.”

As a teacher myself, I can understand why other educators feel this way. A new USA Today story reveals how teachers from across the country share these sentiments, so you can only imagine how much more personal this must feel in Kentucky, where teachers feel like their livelihoods are on the chopping block.

The Fight Isn’t Over

While many teachers were left with a bad taste in their mouths from this election, their reactions tell me that the fight isn’t over. With graduation requirements and charter school funding on the table for the incoming General Assembly, we know that future fights are coming. And of course, with the impending gubernatorial election next fall, I think it’s a safe bet that Frankfort hasn’t seen the last of the #RememberInNovember crowd.

This gives hope to newly-elected Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy, who has a unique argument about why teachers couldn’t translate public outcry into electoral victories this election.

The Kentucky GOP essentially made Bevin invisible, lumping state and local races into the national narrative designed to gin up their base. These elections were less a referendum on Bevin, who is unpopular in the state, than a referendum on Trump, who is popular. The problem for them next year will be that Bevin is actually on the ballot. As is typical, their message muddied the waters to distract voters from the real, local issues at stake like public education.

This brings optimism to teachers like Janet Wells from Rockcastle County, who instead have chosen to focus on the positive takeaways from the midterms. “I have some optimism from the election results. We did get one-third of our teacher candidates elected. That’s not bad for our first try with a year to find candidates, raise money, and campaign for them. […] This is a foundation to build on.”

Arlene Jacina, a preschool teacher from Fayette County, called it a “reality check.” Still, it’s clear that she’s not giving up: “We are still here. You don’t win a war with one battle, we have to be in it for the long haul. And now we have the luxury of time to plan for the next round… Look how incredibly close some of these races were with totally inexperienced candidates. We have learned from the process and will do better next time.”

Where Do Teachers Go From Here?

Even if Kentucky’s teacher candidates failed to pull off the “big red wave” they had been hoping for, they made enough noise to shape public policy in last year’s General Assembly. That alone should give them some clout as legislators look to begin the 2019 session next month.

Allison Slone, a former Kentucky State Teacher Fellow and founder of Kentucky Teachers In The Know, put it like this: “We now have friends on both sides and in both chambers. We will work with those who are willing to pull up a chair and listen. Our voices have been heard and will not be silenced anytime soon. Those who do not work for the betterment of education will find that giving us two more years to prepare may just be to their demise. At the end of the election day, Kentucky voted against public education, but the very next day thousands of educators across the Commonwealth walked back into their classrooms in 120 counties for their students. It’s about the students first, foremost, and always.”

Wherever it goes from here, I hope Kentucky teachers will continue to have this mindset. Any fight that puts students’ best interests at the forefront is a fight worth having.

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