FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Thousands of Kentucky teachers demanded a state budget that helps schools as lawmakers debated whether to reject the Republican governor's vetoes and restore increases in education spending.
Teachers hoisted signs and repeated "we love our children" at a rally outside Kentucky's Capitol, but the focus quickly shifted inside. Demonstrators chanted "we are united, can't be divided" as lawmakers debated whether to uphold a $480 million tax increase that fuels record new spending on public education.
Classes were canceled around Kentucky as teachers descended on the statehouse, wearing red T-shirts and carrying signs that said "I love my public school." 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 out of loud speakers before speeches began.
"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.
The 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. The veto puts Republican lawmakers in a tough position, asking them to vote a second time on a tax increase in an election year. The votes were expected to be close.
"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, and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, disagreed. Bevin vetoed both the tax increase and the education spending, arguing the new taxes won't generate enough money to cover the new spending. Bevin tweeted that the bills were "sloppy" and "non-transparent."
"I have met with House and Senate leaders all week to propose more responsible ways to pay for 100 percent of the requested education funding. Crickets," Bevin tweeted.
He urged lawmakers to approve his vetoes, pledging that "not only will I call a special session to pass a transparent and properly balanced budget, but that we will also pay for it in ways that are not arbitrary & complicated."
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 on 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.
Thousands of Oklahoma teachers gathered at the state Capitol again, but crowds were noticeably smaller Friday.
Kentucky teachers haven't asked for a raise. They are instead focused on overall funding.
Middle school science teacher Leslie Atkins said several students came to her Thursday and asked if she was attending the rally "for us."
"And they always said, 'for us' — even the kids understand that we're not here for teachers, we're here for them," she said.
Earlier this month teachers lost a battle over pensions, but lawmakers responded with a budget plan that included record-high classroom spending. The Legislature also restored school transportation funding and health insurance for teachers who retired after 2010 but don't yet qualify for Medicare.
Kentucky's lawmakers have struggled with the complexities of passing a two-year state budget, searching for education funding and trying to fix one of the country's worst-funded pension systems. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, straining state and local government finances.
Bevin further angered teachers by signing legislation altering pensions for teachers and other state employees. The changes preserve benefits for most workers, but move new hires into a hybrid plan. Opponents worry this will discourage young people from becoming teachers. The pension changes have already drawn a court challenge.
Associated Press writer Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.