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Kentucky Senate confirms Robbie Fletcher as next state education commissioner

Kentucky School Boards Association

Veteran school administrator Robbie Fletcher won state Senate confirmation Monday to become Kentucky’s next education commissioner, taking on a lead role in managing a statewide school system that, based on test scores, is still recovering from pandemic-era setbacks.

Fletcher's confirmation came three days after he discussed his education priorities and management style during an appearance before the Senate Education Committee. He stressed the need for schools to offer a safe environment where students are nurtured and provided a quality education.

“There’s no greater honor, there’s no greater trust, there’s no greater responsibility than when someone tells you: ‘I’m going to send my child to your school,’” Fletcher told the Senate panel.

The Republican-dominated Senate followed up by confirming Fletcher on a 36-1 vote on Monday — the last day of this year's legislative session. Fletcher will assume the role of education commissioner after spending a decade as superintendent of Lawrence County schools in eastern Kentucky. He started his career as a math and science teacher before becoming an assistant principal and then a principal.

“I know that Dr. Fletcher is not one to fall back from a challenge, and I think that there is no doubt that the current state of education in the commonwealth of Kentucky presents such a challenge,” Republican state Sen. Phillip Wheeler said. “But I think that the Kentucky state Board of Education chose the right man for the job at the right time.”

The state education board selected Fletcher last month, but his appointment required state Senate confirmation. Fletcher will begin his new job on July 1. His predecessor, Jason Glass, had a tumultuous stint that included guiding schools through the COVID-19 pandemic and clashing with GOP lawmakers.

Statewide test scores released last fall showed that students in Kentucky made some improvement, especially in elementary schools, but considerable work remained to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

The test results indicated that elementary to high school students were still struggling across a range of core subjects since the COVID-era shift to virtual learning. Those struggles reflected a nationwide problem of lagging academic achievement, prompting extensive efforts in Kentucky and elsewhere to help students overcome the pandemic learning setbacks.

The education commissioner role in Kentucky has been filled on an interim basis by Robin Fields Kinney, who stepped in after Glass left the position last year. Glass came under heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers for the state education department's inclusive LGBTQ+ stances.

After his committee appearance last week, Fletcher was asked by a reporter for his position on a sweeping measure enacted by GOP lawmakers last year that prevents transgender youth from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity and allows teachers to refuse to refer to them by the pronouns they use.

"No matter what their background, no matter what the decisions they make, my goal will be to love all children,” he replied.

Fletcher committed to working with lawmakers during his appearance before the Senate committee, which resonated with Republican lawmakers who spoke in favor of his confirmation Monday.

He also praised lawmakers for the two-year state spending plan they enacted recently, calling it the “best budget for education” he could recall.

He said he will vote against a proposed constitutional amendment GOP lawmakers voted to put on this year's general election ballot that will let voters decide whether taxpayer money should be able to flow to private or charter schools. If ratified, lawmakers could choose whether to support private or charter school education with public funds.

“I am not for taking public funds and putting them into a private school,” Fletcher said. “And I’ve talked to Senate members about that. If this passes in legislation, then we’re going to have to, as public servants, honor that.”