Kentucky education commissioner resigns; advocate for charter schools appointed

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned Tuesday after a four-hour, closed-door meeting by the state board of education, whose members were all appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

The board, which included seven members that Bevin named Monday, then appointed Wayne Lewis, chair of the Kentucky Charter Schools Advisory Council, as an interim leader at an annual salary of $150,000 a year.

Just before 6 p.m., after the board had met privately for hours, former board chairman Roger Marcum said Pruitt had left the building and would not be returning. A short time later, the board returned, and Pruitt’s resignation was announced.

The change was greeted with strong reactions from educators and legislators.

“Despite the outcry of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, today Governor Matt Bevin continued his offensive against public education, this time through proxies and behind closed doors,” said Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler, whose group had pushed back against the expected move earlier in the day. “Dr. Stephen Pruitt has been a strong and effective champion for our students and public schools. Forcing an honorable and highly qualified man to resign from his position without any cause is contrary to the best interests of students across the Commonwealth.”

House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins said that it was “a sad day for public education and the children of Kentucky. This is just another attempt by Governor Bevin to weaken and dismantle Kentucky’s education system and implement his agenda of charter schools.”

Pruitt was hired in 2015, when the board was controlled by appointees of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Bevin on Monday issued an executive order appointing seven new members to the board, including Hal Heiner, former Education and Workforce Development secretary, and the governor’s former communications director, Amanda Stamper. Heiner resigned his cabinet secretary job to take the new post. All seven seats were vacant as of Friday because the terms expired.

Bevin previously named four others to the board that develops policies governing Kentucky’s 173 school districts and the Kentucky Department of Education, so his appointees now have full control. The president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Robert King, serves by law as a non-voting member of the board.

The state board chose Milton Seymore as its chair Tuesday. When a motion was made that Heiner be the board chairman, he declined, saying he supported Seymore.

Seymore said Pruitt “was not pushed out.” He said the move was not about Pruitt’s performance, but the board wanted to move faster to go “to another level” for children all over the state. He said the board would start working on hiring a Commissioner within weeks.

Rep. John Carney, R-Campbellsville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Pruitt had done “an admirable job,” and Carney was disappointed and unhappy with the decision that Pruitt not continue. “I wish this had not happened,” said Carney. He said if Pruitt was not pushed out “he was certainly encouraged.”

Lewis, the interim commissioner, has been executive director of education policy and programs in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky. According to his UK biography, he is a former middle and high school special education teacher. Tuesday night, he said he would ask for leave from UK and would resign from the cabinet.

Lewis said he intended “to hit the ground running.” He said an audit of Jefferson County Schools would be a priority.

Lewis said it is no secret that he is a proponent of charter schools. He said he would soon have a “rich” conversation about charter school funding. He said he didn’t know what the board was going to do prior to Tuesday and he had not talked to Bevin. Lewis said some Kentucky students were performing well but achievement gaps were widening.

“There’s plenty to celebrate but ...there’s just as much that we should be very concerned about.” He said Kentucky needed to make “tremendous improvement” in short order.

As Bevin’s appointees on the Kentucky Board of Education had deliberated behind closed doors, Pruitt said support from teachers and others in the previous 24 hours made him feel “like I made a difference.” The audience in the board meeting room gave him a standing ovation and he became emotional.

“It is what it is,” Pruitt said. “When I came here I knew it was always an option.”

He said he had not been told prior to the vote that he would lose his job. He said being commissioner was the greatest job he ever had.

Pruitt said Bevin had the right to appoint whoever he wanted to the state education board. About Bevin, Pruitt said, “To be perfectly honest with you I haven’t had a conversation with him in a long time.”

At a morning news conference, Bevin said he liked Pruitt “as a person.”

Bevin did not talk about whether Pruitt was to be removed later in the day or whether the state would take over the Jefferson County Public Schools system.

“I can’t even begin to state that,” Bevin said at the time. “That it is or isn’t the case. Because I have zero involvement in this decision.”

He said he could not hypothesize what the board might do “but here’s what I want ... to close this achievement gap.”

Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Lexington that favors “school choice” this week praised Bevin’s appointments as critically important, saying the new members would bring a sense of reform.

The General Assembly approved charter schools in Kentucky in 2017, but did not include a funding mechanism for charters in the budget during this year’s legislative session.

Reporter Jack Brammer contributed to this article.