They Helped Lead Kentucky's Teacher Protests. Now They're Running For Office.

Battered by budget cuts and pension changes, some Kentucky educators hope to change the system from within.
Teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol in Frankfort to rally for increased funding and to protest changes to their state funded pension system on April 13, 2018.
Teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol in Frankfort to rally for increased funding and to protest changes to their state funded pension system on April 13, 2018.

A year after a record number of Kentucky teachers ran for state Legislature and mass protests shut down schools across the state, two educators are setting their sights on more powerful statewide offices.

Jacqueline Coleman, a high school assistant principal, and Kelsey Hayes Coots, a middle school teacher, both participated in last spring’s protests, during which Kentucky teachers swarmed the state Capitol to demonstrate against years of school budget cuts and proposed changes to their pension plans.

Neither has held office, but now both will appear on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary ― Coleman as the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s current attorney general, and Hayes Coots as a candidate for state auditor.

Kentucky was one of several states that experienced widespread teacher protests last spring. Offshoots of those demonstrations have continued into 2019, a statewide election year in which Gov. Matt Bevin (R) ― one of the chief targets of teachers’ ire ― is seeking reelection.

The presence of two teachers on the ballot, even in a little-watched off-year election, will test the ongoing strength of the “Red for Ed” movement that grew out of last year’s protests, especially as teachers’ unions and public education advocates fight to reverse decades of budget cuts that have strangled school systems nationwide.

It could also make education a major issue in Democrats’ efforts to unseat an unpopular Republican governor. Critics have painted Bevin as one of the nation’s most ardent opponents of public education and teachers’ efforts to stave off even more cuts.

“There is a war on public education in Kentucky, and it’s going to take educators rising up [to stop it],” Coleman told HuffPost this week. “And if our government won’t listen to us, invite us in and give us a seat at the table. We’ve just decided that we’re going to run and we’re going to become that government.”

‘Our Leaders Are Working To Gut Education’

Both Coleman and Hayes Coots cited the 2018 protests as their inspiration for seeking office this year.

Hayes Coots, who teaches middle school in Louisville, helped organize the demonstrations as part of a grassroots organization that originated on Facebook and helped persuade teachers to shut down schools in April 2018. For days, those teachers swarmed the state Capitol in Frankfort to protest further rounds of public education budget cuts and reforms to the public pension system.

The ordeal, in which the GOP-led Legislature attached pension reforms to a piece of legislation dealing with public sewage system regulations, gave Hayes Coots “a front-row seat into the broken inner workings of the Legislature,” she told HuffPost.

“Our leaders are working to gut public education, trample workers’ rights, roll back our gains in health care, and are doing everything they can to institute a two-tiered, 48th-in-everything, win-at-all-costs, every-man-for-himself version of Kentucky,” Hayes Coots said. “And I reject that.”

Coleman, meanwhile, ran for office in 2014, four years before joining the protests in Frankfort last April. The daughter of a former state legislator, she ultimately fell short in her own bid to win a state legislative race, returning to school and her job coaching girls’ basketball. She had no plans to pursue another office until Beshear ― who as the attorney general successfully sued to block the pension reform law ― tapped her to run for lieutenant governor. It was an opportunity, she said, to ensure that public education played a major role in the governor’s race.

“I think that we are learning how to channel that frustration.”

- Jacqueline Coleman

“Fully funding public education has become kind of like a buzzword, but it has real meaning and there are real kids behind that issue,” Coleman said. “And I’ve seen exactly how it affects a school, and a classroom. And I don’t know that the greater population truly understands how detrimental budget cuts are to public education year after year after year.”

The Beshear-Coleman ticket is currently locked in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination against former state auditor Adam Edelen and state Rep. Rocky Adkins. Tuesday’s winner will likely face Bevin, who will enter the general election as one of the most unpopular governors in the country, according to public polls. Bevin’s approval ratings ― which are low even among Republicans ― cratered after the teacher protests a year ago, especially after he insinuated that teachers’ choice to close schools would result in instances of child abuse across Kentucky.

He later apologized, but when smaller groups of teachers closed schools again this year, Bevin’s administration took an even more aggressive response, demanding that school districts turn over the names of teachers who had used sick days to return to Frankfort to protest another round of proposed pension changes.

‘We Can’t Afford To Lose A Single Dollar’

Bevin is not solely responsible for Kentucky’s pension crisis or its crunched education budgets, which have undergone repeated rounds of spending cuts over the last two decades. But his aggressive stance toward teachers and his pursuit of an arch-conservative agenda, which has included signing legislation legalizing charter schools in Kentucky, has bolstered teachers’ opposition to him. And Democrats hope it has made public education a major issue in the state.

“I think that we are learning how to channel that frustration,” Coleman said. “It’s one thing to go to Frankfort every year to rally. But I think we all realize now, ‘If I don’t want to keep doing this every year, then I probably should make sure that I’m voting for the best pro-public education candidates.’ The way that we can really make a difference as a voting bloc is obviously on Election Day.”

Hayes Coots, meanwhile, is also facing a crowded primary race in which public education and the state’s pension crisis are major issues. Both have factored into her campaign; as auditor, Hayes Coots said she would focus on bringing more transparency to a state government that a Harvard study recently ranked as one of the nation’s most corrupt.

“In a revenue-strapped state, we can’t afford to lose even a single dollar to fraud or corruption,” Hayes Coots said. “One dollar that is wasted to inefficiency or abuse is one dollar that doesn’t go to the 125 kids that sit in my classroom daily and kids that are like them across the commonwealth.”

Though neither has held office, both said their experience as educators has put them on the front lines of Kentucky’s most pressing problems.

“Every challenge we face in this commonwealth, teachers face in their classrooms,” Coleman said. “We cannot talk about any solution to any of the challenges that we face if we don’t first talk about public education, because it’s the genesis of every solution.”

The energy teacher protests generated in 2018 didn’t necessarily translate to the ballot box: Of the record 51 teachers who ran for office last year, 37 lost. But the 14 winners included a teacher who, running as a Republican, knocked off one of the highest-ranking lawmakers in the state House. And on Tuesday, Hayes Coots and Coleman could earn the chance to win even bigger seats.

“Public educators need to be at the table to protect public education,” Hayes Coots said. “I’m proud to prove that educators can move to the public square, gain broad support and run competitive and professional campaigns. If elected, I’ll show that we can win too.”

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