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OPINION: OCS teachers' perspective on pension reform, STC, teacher advocacy

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By The Staff

Dear Oldham Countians,

With this regular session underway in Frankfort, there are expected to be a wide variety of bills across a wide variety of topics which will be debated.  As always, we have elected representatives who we, as a community, believe will best advocate for Oldham County’s needs. However, while exercising our right to vote is an essential part of our Commonwealth’s health, so too is exercising our right to protest and petition when those who are elected support decisions that are not in our best interests.

As educators in Oldham County, we have a unique position in our community: the majority of children in our county will pass through Oldham County Schools.  From the ages 3 to 18 we will share in the development of our county’s children; jointly developing their minds and characters into future leaders of our county, state, and, hopefully, country.  While, ideally, this can be confined to just the classroom, we all know that life is never that neat.  Sometimes, doing what is best for the kids requires the teachers to step out of the classroom and advocate for them elsewhere.

With that in mind, there are three major factors that Oldham County educators would like to make the community aware of: Scholarship Tax Credits, Pension Reform, and Teacher Advocacy. These are issues that, based on our professional assessment, could have serious, negative consequences not just on education across the Commonwealth, but on our communities here in Oldham County. It is our hope, request, and goal that these factors do not come to fruition because, if they do, our students...our community’s children...will be the ones to pay the price.

Scholarship Tax Credits

HB205/SB118- This is the Scholarship Tax Credit in both House and Senate form. Scholarship Tax Credits (STC) present a particularly dangerous problem for counties like Oldham for two reasons:

Firstly, as awesome as some of Oldham County’s private schools are, they do not drive the property value or even the academic achievement of our schools.  Our schools are great because our communities are great. We have amazingly supportive parents who genuinely, and deeply, care about the education and college/career readiness of their students and it reflects in our day to day work. Even the most “challenging” kid can find loads of community support here in Oldham County and I can go on for days with stories of support and compassion.

But, if our community begins to abandon our schools there will be two nearly immediate outcomes. Firstly, academic performance will drop.  Historically, despite the sales pitch, these type of scholarship tax programs are picked up by the more affluent members of the community as opposed to the most needing. That means families who can offer the most support not just to their students but other public school students will take that support elsewhere.  This generally correlates with a decline in academic performance since household income is generally a strong indicator of future academic success.

Secondly, but related, with the dip in academic success so too will our property values decline. Sound alarmist? I challenge you to look up any number of house listings in OC.  Somewhere in the sales pitch, you will find the phrase “Districted to Oldham County Schools” in some form or fashion. It is our public schools that attract immigration to OC from Jefferson and surrounding counties and it is our property values that support our award winning schools.  Over time, as the academic success decline triggers a property value (read: local school funding) decline, our performance will only become that much more problematic as Oldham County schools struggle to maintain funding.

This bill would be a 1-2 knockout punch for Oldham County.  If all politics are local then we need to encourage our local reps to be against these bills as they do not support, but instead harm, our local community.

In place of such measures, we would encourage Frankfort to invest the millions of dollars such a tax cut would cost (at the time of writing there is no completed actuarial analysis of either bill so

it is impossible to say with certainty what the actual cost of said tax credit might be) back into the public school system. Bring SEEK funding back to the levels they should be once accounted for inflation (currently there has been no increase, once you account for inflation, in SEEK funding since 2008), providing funding for SB1, currently on the Governor’s desk, which would provide an SRO for every school, a counsellor for every 250 students, and an on staff mental health consultant.

Pension Reform

HB505/HB504 - We understand that, at this point, some may be tired of hearing about “teacher pensions.”Why should this matter at all? Can’t teacher’s simply apply for Social Security? What about investments; why can’t teacher’s invest more wisely in 401(k)’s like other workers?

Part of the idea behind a wage system is that jobs are able to meet some “market standard” for their value. Lower skilled jobs, typically, pay less because there is a huge supply of workers wanting/able to enter that field while higher skilled jobs, typically, pay more because there are fewer workers able to meet the high skill demands of that field.  This is a central concept in how different jobs receive different pay values.

For educators in Oldham County, however, we have to deal with a much more stark reality.  A five-year Oldham County teacher, with a Masters Degree, makes a little over 46,000 a year.  By contrast, a five-year subrogation analyst at the Rawling’s Company, with an Associates Degree, will on average, be bringing home 82,000 a year (based on Rawling’s own career postings).

That’s, on average, a difference of 36,000 a year between a job that is higher skilled and one that is lower skilled (at least based upon basic requirements).

We say this not to deflect from the issue of pension or somehow drag a local business into this mess, but to highlight the importance of the pension to teachers.  We have never talked to a parent who wanted “mediocre” teachers in their classroom.  Every parent wants the best educational experience for their child. We want highly qualified professionals who are masters not just of their content but also their craft who are working with our children and pushing them to develop into smarter, more capable humans than they were the day before.

So, if the pay isn’t great, what is there to attract those highly qualified people to the teaching profession? As we’ve stated earlier: higher pay is correlated with higher skilled workers.  The answer, historically, was the pension. Teachers could put in a certain number of years at less than competitive pay and, as a reward, the community would provide for them a robust retirement package. That was it. That was the selling point.

If the pension is taken away or weakened, then suddenly the calculation changes.  That five- year teacher with the Master’s Degree is probably smart enough to do some basic math.  They’ll realize that a private sector job, in the short and long run, is financially better for themselves than being a teacher. Like so many other highly qualified teachers across the Commonwealth, they’ll take jobs which provide higher pay (allowing for meaningful investment in 401(k) style retirement programs) and Social Security benefits (which, currently, teachers do not receive). Highly qualified teachers will leave not because of burn-out or some other moral failing, but because market forces compel them to do so.

And what will fill the void such highly qualified teachers leave behind?  Naturally, the teaching profession will be filled with either sub-par educators (remember, low wages attract lower-skilled workers) or people who are simply “passing through” (not really interested in honing their craft or the community in Oldham County). Sure, the pension is a promise.  But it’s more than that...it is what makes teaching a competitive option in the job market.  This is why current teachers express concern for pension bills that don’t affect them currently: because we can see what it will do to the profession as a whole and we want our community to be healthy and thriving long after we, personally, are gone.

We would encourage our community to join us in opposing any bill which would move pension (for either current or future employees) from the traditional defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan without also accounting for pay rates across the state.  In an ideal world, we would like to see the traditional defined benefit plan shored back up with the funding and management it needs, even if it will take years for it to become stable again.  However, we recognize that may not be possible; so we would also encourage you to support any bill or measure which would allow Kentucky teachers access to Social Security funds which, while not outright solving the pension problem, would go a long way to making teaching competitive again. Lastly, we would also encourage exploration of other possible benefits including student loan forgiveness programs, professional development/additional education funding, or improved medical benefits.

Teacher Advocacy

The governor and certain members of the legislature are correct.  There is a secret conspiracy among teachers in this state. It drives us to, sometimes, make decisions which seem irrational to outsiders and will cause state congressmen and women no end of grief.  We’ll go ahead and let you in on it: We will do whatever it takes to ensure our students in our communities receive the best support they can. Whatever. It. Takes.

Sometimes people outside the profession (and, sadly, some inside the profession as well) like to draw a distinction between Teacher Advocacy and Student Advocacy.  As if somehow to say that when teachers ask for things for themselves, such as pensions, they are doing so at the expense of the students or without the students in mind.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Strong teacher advocacy will always improve student outcomes.  Everything that teachers advocate for they do so from a place where the kids at the forefront of their minds.  That is not to say all teachers walk in lock-step, ideologically, but even our philosophical differences stem from the same core question: How can we better serve our students?  It is only by allowing teachers a forum where all their voices can be heard that we, as a profession, can truly search out what that answer is not just for ourselves and our classrooms, but for our communities as a whole.

This is why organizations such as KEA are essential.  They provide a mechanism for teachers to coordinate their efforts and interact with the political system in a way that is positive and constructive. They help safeguard against some of the more radical notions that can come up both inside education and inside the Capitol to ensure that we continue to grow our State’s education program through the years.

This is why we are concerned with, what seems like, an intentional and systematic approach to undermine our ability, as a profession, to effectively organize and advocate for our students on a statewide scale. Whether it is HB525 which would dilute the ability for teacher’s to have a fair say in the Teacher Retirement System’s management, SB3 which undermines local Site Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils, HB508 which would undermine the ability of organizations like KEA or KAPE to offer competitive services for membership (and thus undermine teacher coordination across the state), or SB8 which would undermine the right to due process for teachers who are being removed from their position (NOTE:  to give credit where it is due Rep Nemes has proposed an amendment which would solve many of the problems of SB 8); there appears to be a coordinated effort to undermine teacher’s ability to collectively advocate for their students.

We would encourage members of Oldham County to contact their representatives and advise them not to support any bill which undermines the teacher’s ability to effectively advocate for themselves and, therefore, their students. We would ask, once again, for the communities trust that, despite sometimes falling short of the ideal, teachers, as a profession, seek only what is best for our students and, in some cases, are the most effective advocates that students can have. Strong educator associations (such as KEA) and SBDM’s go a long way to protecting that advocacy.

In the end, Oldham County teachers are ready to engage in the political process, at all levels to ensure that our community and students are protected from legislation which would only harm them. We plan on engaging in the following activities and would ask that the community join us in them (as much as possible):

1)  Contact your representative. Call them. Email them.  Let them know that you stand with your teachers and support the positions we’ve outlined above.  Remind them that you elected them to do what is best for Oldham County...not to follow some state-wide agenda which will only undermine us.

2)  Spread the word to other community members. Not everyone has a kid in public school. However, everyone in Oldham County is affected by the school’s performance through our property values. Moreover, the future workers, entrepreneurs, and leaders of Oldham County (whom even those without kids will rely on and turn to) will come through our public school system. The more community members we can get on board the better.

3)  Support direct teacher action. Contact the board. Make them aware that you, as the people who elected them and put them in their positions, want them to champion these causes in Frankfort. Remind them that, in the absence of strong leadership, direct teacher action, such as “sick-outs” are inevitable. Request that, if teachers take an extended “sick-out” that the board allow schools to still provide some services (food services) in order to ensure the most needy in our community do not suffer unduly.

We are all part of the same community. We all seek the same goal: the development of strong men and women for tomorrow’s world. We are all Oldham Countians.  We ask that you, members of the community, join us, your local public school educators, as we continue to advocate for our county and our students in Frankfort.

Sincerely,

Teachers Hunter Cardwell and Danese Caley, on behalf of an organization of Oldham County Teachers, which is made of nearly 635 teachers