FRANKFORT, Ky. — As Kentucky teachers declare victory after the Republican-dominated legislature overrode vetoes from the state's GOP governor of a spending plan that included new money for education, the question going forward is whether teachers will be able to sustain their momentum into the fall elections when Republicans will try to defend their super majority.
Teacher Karen Schwartz brought a sign to Kentucky's state Capitol on Friday declaring "Support our Schools." But it was her shoes, a comfortable pair of Crocs, that had a bigger message for state lawmakers. "They think we are going to get tired and go home," she said. "We're not going to get tired."
Teachers had been booing Republicans for months after they passed changes to the teachers' pension system. But Friday, teachers cheered as Republicans voted to override Gov. Matt Bevin's vetoes.
Those cheers were dampened later when Bevin decried teachers for leaving work to protest at the Capitol, causing more than 30 school districts in the states to close for the day.
"I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them," Bevin said, according to a video posted to Twitter by a reporter for WDRB-TV. "I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone because a single parent didn't have any money to take care of them. I'm offended by the idea that people so cavalierly and so flippantly disregarded what's truly best for children."
A spokesman for the Kentucky Education Association declined to comment. Mary Nishimuta, executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said Bevin's comments "crossed a line. As a mother, suggesting children were abused as a prop for his political rhetoric is disturbing and absurdly in poor taste."
Thousands of teachers rallied inside and outside the Capitol on Friday. The rally took on a festival-like atmosphere as some teachers sat in lawn chairs or sprawled out on blankets. Crosby Stills, Nash and Young's hit "Teach Your Children" bellowed from the loud speakers.
"I don't want to be out of my classroom. I want to be in my classroom instructing future citizens, but I'm afraid that spending at the state level is getting worse and worse, and we need those dollars for a 21st century education," said Stephanie Ikanovic, who has been a teacher for 21 years.
Kentucky's two-year operating budget includes record new spending for public education, fueled by a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax and a 6 percent sales tax on some services including home and auto repair. But Bevin vetoed both the budget and the money in it, calling the bills "sloppy" and "non-transparent." He said they would not raise enough money to cover the new spending.
The veto put Republican lawmakers in a tough position, asking them to vote a second time on a tax increase in an election year. But 57 Republicans eagerly voted to override, asserting their independence after a tumultuous year marred by a sexual harassment scandal.
"You can stand here all day and act like you are all for (education) until it comes time to pay for it. Well, that's a coward," said Republican Rep. Regina Huff, a middle school special education teacher. "We have to have this revenue to fund our schools."
Democrats sided with the governor, but for different reasons. They said the tax increase disproportionately harms the poor while benefiting the wealthy. They wanted the vetoes to stand, forcing the governor to call a special session of the state legislature to pass a new budget.
The house voted 57-40 to override the veto of the tax increase and 66-28 to override the veto of the budget. The Republican-controlled state Senate will take up the vetoes next.
Bevin followed the debate closely, responding to lawmakers' speeches with tweets. He said he met with House and Senate leaders all week to propose a more "responsible way to pay for 100 percent of the requested education funding."
"Crickets," Bevin tweeted.
The unrest comes amid teacher protests in Oklahoma and Arizona over low funding and teacher pay. The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia teachers, whose nine-day walkout after many years without raises led to a 5 percent pay hike.
In Arizona, after weeks of teacher protests and walkout threats across the state, Gov. Doug Ducey promised a net 20 percent raise by 2020.
In Oklahoma, teachers ended two weeks of walkouts Thursday, shifting their focus to electing pro-education candidates in November. Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation raising teacher salaries by about $6,100 and providing millions in new education funding, but many say schools need more money.