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After W.Va. Strike, Teachers in Kentucky and Arizona Fight for Pension, Higher Pay

"Don't make me go all West Virginia on you." That's just one of the protest signs created by Kentucky principal Gerry Brooks and offered to teachers across the country who might feel emboldened by West Virginia teachers' nine-day strike that ended in a 5 percent pay hike.  

The Oklahoma Education Association last week announced schools would shut down across the state if the legislature failed to fund a pay raise for teachers by April 1. 

Teachers in Kentucky and Arizona are making smaller waves and have so far stopped short of a walkout.

Kentucky teachers have essentially stopped a bill in the senate that would have cut their pension benefits. They've held "walk-ins" statewide where they protest outside the school in the early morning then walk into the building together, and rallies at the capitol in Frankfort to voice their opposition to the bill, which by many reports, has little chance of passing now.

"I think it has a very limited and difficult path forward at this point in time," Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters on Wednesday. He said he might introduce legislation later in a special session, according to the Courier Journal.

The bill in question threatens to cut yearly cost-of-living increases for retired teachers from 1.5 percent to 1 percent until the pension system is 90 percent funded. It's currently 56 percent funded, reports the Associated Press. New teachers would be placed in a retirement plan that is a mix of a traditional pension and 401K-style plan. Those with fewer than 20 years on the job would work under a new retirement formula that rewards them with better benefits the more years they work. The practice of accumulating sick days to boost retirement pay would no longer be allowed. 

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called the teachers "selfish" for protesting the bill. Kentucky's pension is one of the worst funded in the country with more than $40 billion in liabilities. 

Teachers argue that they fork over a sizeable portion of their small pay checks into a pension system that they depend on, especially since they don't have the option to draw upon social security in retirement. (Teachers in some states don't pay into the social security system.) 

"I never once questioned the 14 percent that came out of my salary because I didn't go into teaching to get rich, did you?" said retired teacher Lisa Petrey-Kirk at a rally on the capitol steps in Frankfort, Ky., to a resounding "No!" from the crowd. "We went into teaching to make a difference and we knew that we were going to have a pension in the end."

Kentucky Education Association president Kelly Beckett warned that teachers would take the fight to the voting booth. "We completely understand what [the governor] is trying to do to public education and we are not going to stand for it," she told the Associated Press.

The Fight for Higher Pay in Arizona

It all began with a "Red for Ed" effort organized on Facebook last week calling on Arizona teachers to dress in red. The aim was to gauge educators' feelings about a potential statewide strike over low pay. Thousands of teachers answered the call. 


With that success under their belts, teachers' next step is to hold a "day of action" on March 28 in Tucson and at the capitol in Phoenix to protest low wages, large class sizes, and "bad education policy."

One Phoenix-area teacher fueled the debate over low pay even more with a post of a document showing her "old annual salary" ($35,490) and her "new annual salary" ($35,621.25) on Facebook. 

"This is my new pay after taking a few professional-development classes," she wrote in the post, which she has since deleted. "I actually laughed when I saw the old salary vs. the new one. I mean really, I need a college degree to make this? I paid $80,000 for a college degree, I then paid several hundred more to transfer my certification to AZ."

The average starting teacher salary in Arizona is just $31,874, according to the National Education Association. Low pay is one of the reasons for the state's teacher shortage. According to a survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, 866 teachers have left their jobs as of December 8. There are more than 1,900 unfilled teacher jobs in the state, while 963 classroom positions are held by teachers with emergency credentials.


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