If Gov.-elect Andy Beshear fulfills his campaign promise to replace the members of the Kentucky Board of Education, he would be the first governor to do so since lawmakers tried to insulate the board from political pressures in 1990 as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.
Beshear, a Democrat, has said he would overhaul the Board of Education by executive order “on day one,” a rallying point for many educators who disagreed with priorities of the current 11-member board appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Beshear has also said he hopes that the board would replace its only employee, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who was hired shortly after Bevin’s appointees took control of the board in 2018.
In a statement Crystal Staley, communications director for Beshear’s incoming administration, said that the move would help create a “positive tone in Frankfort” in a statement.
“Gov.-elect Beshear has only said that we must have a Board of Education and commissioner that is fully committed to public education, which requires a change that he will make after being sworn in,” Staley wrote.
Beshear, Bevin At Odds
Beshear and education advocates have criticized Lewis for his stances supporting charter schools, a push for a state takeover of Louisville’s public school system in 2018 and collection of teacher absence records when educators called in sick to protest at the state Capitol earlier this year.
But an overhaul of the Board of Education would be similar to the very thing Beshear repeatedly sued Bevin for — using the governor’s reorganization powers to shape state boards to his liking.
Although Bevin totally replaced several state boards throughout his four years in office, he didn’t use his reorganization power to overhaul the Board of Education. Instead, his Board of Education appointments came when members’ terms lapsed, giving them full control of the board starting in 2018.
Beshear challenged Bevin’s total replacement of the University of Louisville board of trustees in 2016. Then in 2017, Beshear argued that Bevin didn’t have the power to create a panel of charter school to advise the Kentucky Board of Education and totally replace boards that deal with certifying teachers and curriculum standards. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the governor had the power to execute both of those executive orders.
And now Beshear says that the high court’s rulings affirm his power to replace all of the members of the state Board of Education before their two-year terms are up.
Incoming Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who recently worked as an assistant principal in Nelson County, said during a press conference this week that the prospective board will include “a team of folks who value public education in the same way that we do.”
“Our goal I know is going to be continue to build out this team with folks who support public education and who see the vision that we see for moving Kentucky forward,” Coleman said.
Kentucky teachers have flexed their political muscle in recent years, launching massive protests in Frankfort in 2018 and 2019 to oppose several measures supported by Bevin and Republican leaders of the state legislature — changes to pension benefits, private scholarship tax credits and education funding.
Teachers have also vigorously opposed charter schools, which have been authorized to open up in Kentucky since 2017, but have not received funding amid intense opposition from educators.
Commissioner Lewis has been a focal point of the charter school issue. He headed up a charter schools advisory committee that advised the state Board of Education before he was hired to replace former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt.
But Lewis has fought back against Beshear’s promise to oust him, saying on Wednesday that his critics have mischaracterized him as an opponent of public education.
“Attacks on my character and my commitment and my background make me angry. They make me want to lash out, they make me want to say things about those people that I shouldn’t say. And it’s only my faith that stops me from doing so,” Lewis said.
Lewis said Beshear should reorganize the Board of Education if that’s what he wants to do and if he feels he has the legal authority to do so.
“If that new board has the authority to fire me without cause and that’s what they choose to do, then they should do it. It’s been a long time since I had to worry about having a job. I will be fine,” Lewis said.
Concerns About Politicization Of Board Of Ed
Lewis’ predecessor, Stephen Pruitt, resigned under duress two years before his contract was up after Bevin’s appointees took control of the board in 2018.
At the time, Bevin said that he liked Pruitt personally, but was concerned that thousands of Kentucky students have fallen below academic proficiency under his watch.
Bevin’s moves raised concerns that Kentucky’s Board of Education was being politicized and undermining KERA, the 1990 education reform law that sought to insulate the board from political influence.
KERA made Kentucky’s top education official a position hired by the Board of Education, rather than elected by a statewide vote.
Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said that Pruitt’s ouster, Lewis’ appointment as commissioner and Beshear’s promise to replace the Board of Education have “increasingly politicized our conversation around education.”
She said that the normal course of appointing board members when their two-year terms expire has “proven successful in the past,” but that if Beshear goes forward with replacing the board, he should do so with non-partisan thought-leaders.
“The conservation around education is too important and it affects families from Republican backgrounds and Democratic backgrounds. We can’t afford to have political conversations about education, we have to protect that space to make sure it’s non-partisan,” Blom Ramsey said.
Terms for Board of Education members are staggered so that some of the 11-member board can be replaced at the start of a governor’s term and the rest can be replaced two years later.
Four board members’ terms will end in April 2020 and seven will end in 2022.
If Beshear reorganized the board before Kentucky’s Republican-led legislature reconvenes in January, lawmakers would have the chance to approve the changes or let them lapse.
Beshear’s first day in office is December 10th.