Kentucky Board of Education members on Thursday voted to elect former Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner as chairman of the board.
Heiner, who Gov. Matt Bevin appointed to the board in April after his resignation as Secretary to the Cabinet, replaces Milton Seymore in the role of chair. Seymore was elected vice-chair.
Bevin made several other new appointments to the board in April and the next day the board replaced Commissioner Stephen Pruitt with charter school proponent Wayne Lewis as interim Commissioner of Education.
“2018 marks 22 continuous years of education service for me, and I am humbled to have been selected by my peers to serve today’s students — the future leaders of our Commonwealth,” Heiner said in a news release Thursday.
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In explaining his qualifications for the job, Heiner said, “I have served on a P-12 school system board, a board serving children with learning differences, a postsecondary education board, and as secretary of Kentucky’s education cabinet.
“I look forward to continuing to work with our educators, parents and most importantly, students, in what I’m sure will be my most challenging and rewarding role yet.”
In June, the board eliminated the nominating committee for board chairman and vice chairman and removed the requirement that board members must have served for one year to be eligible for those offices.
State board member Gary Houchens said he abstained from the vote on Heiner not because he didn’t think Heiner would do a good job but because he had concerns about the procedure.
Board member Rich Gimmel said Heiner was the best person for the job and the move was not political.
Critics in the General Assembly have said that Bevin is trying to use Kentucky’s education system to further his political agenda.
“Bevin’s protégé is now positioned to deliver the republican agenda for public education: privatize it!, “ said state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington.
But Heiner dispelled that notion in a news conference Thursday.
“I haven’t heard the first mention of anything political ... or some outside force that would direct this independent board,” said Heiner. ”I am here because of my individual passion for education.”
He also reminded reporters that he ran against Bevin for Governor in the 2015 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Heiner said that his goal is that every student leaves public school in Kentucky “prepared for life.” He has said he hopes to give school districts more flexibility.
One issue that needs to be fixed is the high number of students going into the fourth grade who can’t read, Heiner said.
Heiner is a conservative who in the past has been critical of Kentucky schools. As a Louisville businessman, he led a charter school advocacy group in 2012 that aired a television advertisement declaring, “Kentucky schools are failing. But there is a better way. Public charter schools offer innovation and accountability. They put public dollars back to work in the classroom. Give parents choices.”
Charter schools were approved in Kentucky in 2017 at Bevin’s urging but the movement has been stalled because the 2018 General Assembly did not approve a permanent funding mechanism. Heiner said Thursday that he had no answer to how charter schools could move forward, but he said when they did open they would be one small tool to help students.
On the topic of charter schools and the controversial proposed takeover of the Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, he said the broader question for Kentucky was raising student proficiency in public districts across the state.
A search for a permanent Commissioner of Education had not yet begun, Heiner told reporters. Lewis has said he would like to have the job. Heiner said that he’s pleased that Lewis had made progress on priority issues, but he did not say Lewis would get the job.