Andy Beshear and Matt Bevin

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Public education grabbed the spotlight in Kentucky's race for governor on Monday as Democratic nominee Andy Beshear and Republican incumbent Matt Bevin exchanged caustic words over whether the state's schools are adequately funded.

Beshear initiated the exchange by accusing Bevin in a new TV ad of supporting budget cuts that the Democratic challenger claimed could imperil Kentucky's rural schools.

The governor quickly condemned the commercial as a "scare tactic" and vigorously defended his record of funding teachers' pensions and public schools.

Speaking to reporters outside the Governor's Mansion, Bevin also launched a new attack against leaders of a prominent education group — continuing a feud that has persisted through two years of teachers rallies against education and pension proposals backed by the governor.

The latest round of attacks began when Beshear's campaign tried to put the governor on the defensive with the new statewide ad.

In the ad, Beshear's running mate, educator Jacqueline Coleman, says: "Imagine having just one school in your community, and the lights are turned off forever." Beshear then adds: "That could happen with Governor Bevin's education cuts."

Beshear's campaign said the claim was based on Bevin's past budget proposals to shift millions of dollars in transportation and health insurance costs to local school districts and erase an outlay for textbooks and instructional materials.

"Matt Bevin has proven time and again that he doesn't value public education," Coleman, who is assuming an increasingly public role in the campaign, said in a statement.

Bevin responded that he has done more than his predecessors to support public education. During his tenure, he said, teachers' pensions have been fully funded, 100% of lottery funds are going toward education and per-pupil public education funding has risen.

"The lies and the distortion have ratcheted up," Bevin said of his rival's ad.

Bevin's campaign also released a pointed video defending his education record. It starts by saying: "Matt Bevin not caring about teachers or state retirees? Well that's just a load of horse manure." The video shows Bevin's grandmother, who spent decades as a high school teacher and who relied on her pension checks while living into her 90s.

Beshear has proposed a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for Kentucky's public school teachers — an incentive he said is needed to help address a statewide teacher shortage. He said the pay plan would cost about $84 million. On Monday, Bevin ridiculed his challenger for not offering specifics on how he'd pay for the salary boost.

Beshear, the state's attorney general, has said he'd start by targeting "exorbitant" salaries paid to some high-ranking Bevin administration officials.

After reciting his education record Monday, Bevin was asked why Beshear is supported by the Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of educators. Bevin, lashing out at KEA's leadership, replied that it has to do with "power and control of money."

"The people that are making the decisions at the KEA don't give a rip about their membership," the governor said.

KEA didn't immediately respond. The group has been sharply critical of Bevin for his efforts to revamp woefully underfunded public pensions and his support for school choice initiatives that the group says would divert money away from public schools. It also has condemned the state Labor Cabinet's investigation of teacher sickouts.

This year's protests at Kentucky's Capitol over education and pension bills in Kentucky were part of a wave of teacher activism that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Oklahoma and Arizona.

Bevin's administration last month said more than 1,000 educators violated state law by participating in protests that shut down some schools. No penalties were assessed, but Bevin's labor secretary warned "the grace extended in this instance" won't be applied if future work stoppages occur. The Courier Journal reported recently that the labor Cabinet's investigative arm combed through superintendents' emails, Capitol visitors' logs and more than 12,700 sick-day entries before concluding that hundreds of protesting educators broke the law.

Bevin has sharply criticized teachers who used sick days to rally, closing some schools. In 2018, he asserted without evidence that an unidentified child who had been left home alone somewhere in the state had been sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down this spring, connecting a girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by teacher protests.