The Kentucky Board of Education has forced out Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis as part of an overhaul in the administration of newly inaugurated Gov. Andy Beshear.
The move comes two days after Beshear totally replaced the board, fulfilling a campaign promise that rallied educators who disagreed with policies of previous members appointed by former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Board chair David Karem announced that Lewis had submitted a letter of resignation during a special meeting of the board of education.
“This is really a return to what the Kentucky Education Reform Act intended. The appointment of a quality board of members to this board and a national search for a commissioner of education,” Karem said.
Karem was one of the sponsors of the landmark 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which created a board to hire the state’s top education official in an attempt to insulate the position from politics.
The board appointed Associate Commissioner Kevin Brown as the Interim Education Commissioner. The board will conduct a national search for the permanent commissioner.
Thursday was the first meeting of the new education board, which announced ahead of time that it would meet in closed session to discuss Lewis’ potential firing.
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 protested at the state Capitol earlier this year.
Members of the former education board have sued to try and block Beshear’s overhaul, arguing that they can’t be removed from their positions before the end of their terms “without cause.”
The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the board can remain in place while the lawsuit transpires.
The board and education commissioner post have become part of a political battleground for education advocates in recent years.
Lewis’ predecessor, Stephen Pruitt, resigned under duress after Bevin’s appointees took control of the board in 2018.
Bevin’s move raised concerns that the board was being politicized and undermining the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which sought to insulate the board from political influence.
And now the board members ousted by Beshear argue that the new governor is undermining the law. Gary Houchens is one of the former members suing against Beshear’s actions.
“If governor can remove board members on a whim for purely political reasons, then there’s really no reason to have a board of education at all,” Houchens said.
During the meeting on Thursday, the new board chair David Karem said Beshear’s overhaul of the board “is 100 percent in keeping with the mission of Kentucky education reform.”
“One of the highlights of Kentucky education reform that we believed there should be the highest quality search for commissioner of education in the commonwealth,” Karem said.
Beshear’s overhaul of the education board is similar to the very thing Beshear repeatedly sued Bevin for when he was attorney general — using the governor’s reorganization powers to shape state boards to his liking.
Now Beshear says that court rulings that upheld Bevin’s powers affirm his ability to replace all of the members of the state Board of Education before their two-year terms are up.
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, an educator from Nelson County who is the state’s new head of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, also serves on the new board. She called Beshear’s overhaul a “reset.”
“We’re going back to a time where public educators and public education systems are put first by people who have done the work and who have a proven life experience doing the work of public schools,” Coleman said.
This post has been updated.