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Teacher's win in Kentucky points to November potential

Last Updated May 23, 2018 at 6:20 pm EDT

In this photo taken Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Mt. Vernon, Ky., Jonathan Shell, House majority floor leader, speaks during an interview. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Teachers across the country have left their classrooms this spring to protest at state capitols, closing schools to win pay raises and better funding in mostly Republican-controlled states.

But their most disruptive act yet may well have come Tuesday night in Kentucky, where a high school math teacher who had never run for public office before defeated the state House majority leader in a GOP primary.

The upset could portend a tumultuous November general election in Kentucky and beyond.

In Kentucky alone, at least 34 current or former teachers — two-thirds of them Democrats — will be on the ballot, and dozens more educators are running in Arizona and Oklahoma.

“It should serve as a wake-up call to everyone” in the Kentucky legislature, said Les Fugate, a former GOP political consultant who now runs a public relations firm in Louisville. “You can’t rest on your laurels of being the majority party and the party that can raise the money.”

In Arizona, teachers are pushing for a ballot initiative that would raise taxes on higher earners to pay for public education. At least five teachers are running for legislative seats as Democrats, and the Arizona Education Association’s political arm is backing several Democrats for statewide office.

In Oklahoma, dozens of public school teachers filed for state House and Senate seats, many of them first-time candidates inspired by a two-week teacher walkout over school funding. The state’s primaries are June 26.

Although a similar run for office by Oklahoma teachers in 2016 was largely unsuccessful, many of the candidates this time hope an energized Democratic electorate and an anti-Trump movement will help them in November.

In Kentucky, the teacher momentum could threaten the new Republican majority in the state House. It was two years ago that Republicans rallied to defeat 17 Democratic incumbents and win control of the chamber for the first time in nearly 100 years.

The man credited with recruiting those candidates, Jonathan Shell, was elected majority leader by his peers. But he suffered a shocking defeat Tuesday at the hands of Travis Brenda, a 20-year teaching veteran.

Some Republican lawmakers chalked Shell’s defeat up to the intricacies of local politics, not necessarily the uprising by teachers.

Of the four House incumbents to lose primaries on Tuesday, Shell was the only one who voted for a law that makes changes to the teachers’ retirement plan. Many teachers were against the measure, which will move all new hires into a hybrid plan that does not guarantee them a traditional pension but could end up giving them more benefits over time. Teachers particularly opposed the way lawmakers rushed the bill through in the final days of the legislative session before the public had a chance to read it.

In another district, Richard Heath, a Republican representative from western Kentucky, will face elementary school teacher Charlotte Goddard, a Democrat, in November.

Heath noted that lawmakers approved budgets cuts for most state agencies just so that they could put more than $1 billion into the teachers’ retirement system. They voted to raise taxes to increase education funding. And they mostly exempted current teachers and public workers from changes to the pension system.

“Do the teachers really understand what we did for them?” Heath said. “Maybe that message hasn’t gotten out yet. Surely between now and November we’ll have the opportunity to drive that message home.”

Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said the problem isn’t messaging, but funding. While lawmakers voted to increase school funding, Winkler said it is not enough to keep up with inflation, and it’s harming morale.

“I don’t care what kind of message you have. You could be telling me you are Jesus. It’s not going to change the state of the commonwealth and our financial future,” Winkler said. “We’ve got to get our house in order. … It’s going to be hard work, but educators know what needs to be done.”

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Sean Murphy contributed reporting from Oklahoma City. Melissa Daniels contributed reporting from Phoenix.

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