Teacher candidates highlight Kentucky legislative races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - At least 36 current and former educators- most of them Democrats - highlight state legislative races in Kentucky eight months after thousands of public school teachers closed nearly two dozen districts to protest changes to the pension system by the Republican-dominated legislature.

Republicans won a majority in the state House of Representatives in 2016 for the first time in nearly 100 years. The GOP then pushed through bills allowing charter schools and making changes to the struggling retirement system for teachers, moving all new hires into a hybrid system. Thousands of teachers responded by marching on the Capitol, and dozens more filed to run for office in what Democrats hope is a "blue wave" heading into the 2019 governor's race.

"I'm tired of just, people who never stepped foot in a classroom since they left in high school deciding what's best for classrooms," said Emily Sullivan, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher in Georgetown, Kentucky. She voted for Democrat Jenny Urie, a high school history teacher who is challenging Republican state Rep. Phillip Pratt in district 62.

Republicans have pushed back, arguing Kentucky's pension system is among the worst funded in the country. Since Republican Gov. Matt Bevin took office, the legislature has pumped billions of dollars into the struggling Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. System administrators noted the $2 billion appropriation over the next two years fully funds the annual required contribution "for the first time in more than a decade."

"I don't understand why they are so angry about that," said Mike Strickland, a 46-year-old engineer who lives in Georgetown and voted for Pratt. "They get so angry over nothing. They think the world is coming to an end."

The National Education Association says nearly 1,800 educators are on the ballot in state legislative races across the country. Momentum for teacher candidates started in West Virginia, when teachers there went on strike to secure pay raises from the state legislature. Other protests followed in Kentucky, Arizona and Oklahoma.

Most of the educator candidates are Democrats. But in Republican-dominated Kentucky, the GOP has seen its own teacher backlash. In May, high school math teacher R. Travis Brenda defeated state House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the Republican primary. Brenda is facing Democrat Mary Renfro, a member of the Madison County School Board.

Democrats still have more registered voters than Republicans in Kentucky. But Republicans have made massive registration gains since President Donald Trump took office, adding 72,029 voters since January 2017 while Democrats have added 1,167. But anger over the teacher pension issue convinced Mike Armstrong, who says he is usually a reliable Republican voter, to vote for Democrat Cathy Carter in Harrodsburg. Carter is a retired teacher running against Republican incumbent Kim King in district 55.

"She's going along with what teachers need," he said.

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