Friday, September 01, 2017

Pruitt's well-intended video

Arguing that he understands state government - and that education somehow exists outside of that realm (which is fairly convincing evidence that he doesn't understand state government at all) Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt made a video appeal to Kentucky teachers to keep a cool head. The gist of his message, though not said directly, was "Please don't retire."

The probability that someone from the governor's (or Ed Secretary's) office asked Pruitt to make such an appeal?: I'm thinking 100 percent. Because, well, you know - politics.

Pruitt lumped the governor's million dollar report in with news reports and Facebook and Twitter comments and called them "conjecture" as opposed to "good information." Pruitt did not specify what good information is, but the governor's report contained specifics and recommended raising the retirement age to 65, freezing pension benefits, and forcing current teachers into a 401(k)-style investment plan, while taking away cost-of-living adjustments that retirees received between 1996 and 2012.

"I've been...around state government for a long time, and one of the things I've learned is whatever's being said prior to a session ...sometimes happens; sometimes doesn't," Pruitt said. By this reasoning, every piece of state legislation is conjecture - right up to the moment it is voted upon, at which time it is no longer conjecture, but it is also too late to do anything about it. The message may have been well-intended, but it came off as a bit condescending.

If, as Commissioner Pruitt says, the pension system has been "a mess for a long time," just how much longer should teachers remain calm? Pruitt says, "It's something that we've got to make sure we are being kept up-to-date on, but it's also a reality that there's gotta be more done to fix it."

This pretext tends to soften the ground for bad news and undermine his other, more supportive, comments about how teachers come to work on days they might prefer to stay home sick, and that teachers are not in it for the money, or the pension, but for the children.

While that is certainly true in a broad general sense, none of us chose the profession so that we could work for free. I am sure that Pruitt showed up for his students. But he would not have shown up day after day if he was not being paid a fair wage. He could not have afforded to. We have families of our own to support. Teacher's salaries are just plain average when viewed nationally - and low when compared to other professions that require advanced education. But the only thing that made underpaying teachers acceptable was the pension system. Now, that is in jeopardy, and failing to maintain a strong system will jeopardize countless future Kentucky teachers and students, as well as the state economy.

This is a time to listen. This is a time to learn. This is a time to speak. This is a time to call the governor and your legislators to fully express your concerns. But this is not a time to be calm and engage in magical thinking to conjure up happy endings.

Raising the revenue required to save the pension system does not  presently seem to be part of the governor's plan. Governor Bevin claims that he will save the pension system. But his plan, so far, will only save remnants of it. And our legislature has repeatedly shown that, left to its own devices, it will happily content itself to under-fund the pension system and break its promises to teachers.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Rise up!

 "We may have to knock them out in order to get them safely to shore,"
-- Gov. Bevin comparing state employees to drowning victims

Following "the policy principles and direction set forth by Governor Bevin and the Commonwealth’s leadership" PRM Consulting Group issued "Pension Performance and Best Practice Analysis. Report #3," this week. None of the recommendations, are good for Kentucky teachers, and creates a situation where existing teachers may not receive promised benefits, while prospective teachers may be persuaded to enter other fields. Meanwhile, approximately 20 percent of Kentucky teachers are eligible for retirement right now.

It used to be that teachers were valued for their dedication and faithful attendance at work. Substitute teachers cannot be expected to be as effective as regular faculty. But unfortunately, remarks by Governor Bevin this week cast dedicated teachers who don't fake illness and waste their sick days during their careers as somehow gaming the system (that was promised to them when they decided to become teachers) and sticking it to the taxpayer. Franklin County Superintendent Mark Kopp called the governor's remark "a cheap shot."

Now, Gov. Bevin is to be commended for taking on the difficult tasks of tax reform and fixing the pension system. His statements that fixing the system will require more revenue are simply true, but too few legislators are willing to utter the words aloud. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that decades of Democrat leadership could not get the jobs done. But it would be great if the governor's "solutions" were real solutions that kept Kentucky's promises. Anyone can wreck a system by carving out benefits - while declaring the system saved.

As happens when cutting taxes for the rich is seen as a higher priority than providing government services to the people, Kentucky's middle-class and poor kids will ultimately suffer. When the adults in charge fail to deal with long-standing problems the future dims and our standing among the states slumps - perpetuating the notion that Kentucky can't, while many other states can.

If adopted, the pension recommendations, would raise the retirement age to 65 while ending the promise of a pension check - all while freezing the pension benefits of Kentucky teachers. Teachers would be moved into a 401(k)-style investment plan that says how much the state will contribute but is mute on the retirement benefits one might expect a the end of their service to the state.


Ron Richmond of the Kentucky Public Pension Coalition expressed his criticism of the recommendations in a statement to Spectrum News. 
“This report was put together by an organization that puts political agendas over data,” Richmond said. “As a state, we must take their recommendations with a grain of salt – their math doesn’t even add up. Other states have made this mistake before and faced the consequences. In the early 1990’s West Virginia switched to a 401(k)-style system for their newly hired teachers after years of underfunding, only to make the situation worse. So much so that they moved teachers back to a defined benefit pension in the mid-2000’s. How PFM could make this recommendation is astounding.”
Gov. Bevin said Thursday the former head of the Kentucky Retirement System should be in jail. If that is true, (it's not) a whole bunch of legislators should be in the cell next door.

It is time for Kentucky teachers to rise up. 

This from Robb Smith, Supt, Bellevue Ind. via Facebook:
Dear Governor Bevin,

As a 22-year veteran of Kentucky’s public education system, I have followed with earnest the increasingly dismal outlook provided by TRS forecasters.  Allow me to frame this letter with the acknowledgement that our pension system is flawed and/or broken.  I know it is.  We, the public educators in the state, know it is.

The underlying reasons for the decline in our system are many: legislative neglect, longer life spans, and a recession to name a few.  Regardless, the finger pointing need not overshadow the solutions.  I can tell you who is NOT at fault—those of us who, in trust and good faith, signed up for a retirement system at the onset of our careers.  Please turn your finger away from us.

Robb Smith
My mother began her career in Kentucky public education in 1970 earning a salary of less than $4000.  She worked in our great Commonwealth for over 30 years.  She is now 68 with lots of life left.  She does not live in a gated community, does not drive a fancy car, and does not take lavish vacations.  At 21, she knew wealth would never be in her future.  She did it anyway.

Following my mother’s example, I signed my first contract in 1995 with a salary around $28,000.  This is much less than my friends earned, who graduated college with degrees in other areas, and barely enough to fashion a life of my own.  I tell you this not to play the martyr, because I am just one of thousands who agreed to these terms.  I tell you this because, like all educators, we knew of the modest life in front of us, and we did it anyway.

You may not know this, but our degrees and our certificates become worthless unless we complete graduate programs.  These are mandatory and are at OUR expense.  Full-time jobs, involvement in extra-curricular activities at minimal compensation, graduate classes, and trying to start families characterizes a teacher in his or her late 20s and early 30s.  Sounds fun, no?  We did it anyway.

Mr. Bevin, despite these flaws to public education, generations of Kentuckians have chosen teaching as a profession.  The compensation for spending our professional lives giving back to our communities has always been relative comfortability in retirement.  Most give over 30 years to the cause and only hope to get 30 more after it is over, albeit at a much lower rate.

There are no absolutes when dealing with humans, but I can confidently say 99% of the people with whom I have worked, and there are hundreds, are not the greed-fueled personalities you have referenced in your speeches.  The professionals in our schools are altruistic in motivation and pure in practice.  To characterize them as anything else is irresponsible and unjust.  To say they are anything but compassionate and dedicated is to distort the truth.

Politics aside, the future of democracy and the sanctity of the Commonwealth rests firmly in public education.  There is no tool in the history of humankind greater than our public schools.  The services we deliver to our communities ensure opportunities for equality and fairness.  You cannot put a price on this investment, Governor.

Behind the brick and mortar facades are schools full of the toughest, most resilient people I have ever known.  I am a better educator and person because of these people.  There are hundreds of thousands of students who are educated contributors to society because of these people.  Despite attacks on our achievement, our character, and our motivation, we persist.  Public education is an easy scapegoat.  We get it.  We knew this going in, but we did it anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Bevin, we know the retirement system needs work.  Why it needs work is much less important than the bi-partisan effort that it will take to fix it.  Let me emphasize that those of us working in public service are neither the problem nor the enemy.  If we have to give a little, fine.  We have been giving our entire careers.  I just ask that you honor the retirement terms we agreed to as beginning teachers and that you involve our organizations in discussions of any potential concessions.

As dire as the situation may be, I am optimistic that a viable solution exists.  You have an opportunity here, Governor, to show the nation the fortitude and resolve of the people of Kentucky.  I trust that you will take that responsibility seriously and work for the interests of the children and teachers in our public schools.


Robb Smith
Bellevue Independent Schools

Wednesday, July 26, 2017