Tom Eblen

What’s behind Gov. Matt Bevin’s public education power grab? That’s the big question.

What is the difference between Kentucky’s governor and an absolute monarch? Lately, not much.

Gov. Matt Bevin has spent his term trying to remake state government in his image. King Matt doesn’t feel constrained by laws or time-tested rules and practices. And woe be unto any legislator, constitutional officer, judge, journalist or school teacher who questions his omnipotence. He will smite them with a word salad of insults.

Bevin’s favorite target is education. He has aggressively tried to centralize power, diminish the role of professional educators and open the door for publicly funded charter schools. The big question: Why?

Bevin claims he wants to improve learning outcomes and efficiency. (One-man rule is nothing if not efficient.) Opponents say he is bringing politics back into public schools — a sad legacy the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 sought to end.

The Republican governor recently issued an executive order abolishing nine state education boards and councils, most of which will be reconstituted with new rules and members he appoints. Bevin also altered two major governing panels, the Council on Postsecondary Education and the Kentucky Board of Education.

Bevin’s order centralizes the agencies responsible for teacher preparation and certification under his hand-picked Board of Education and commissioner. Many professional educators worry the result will be a teacher work force that is less qualified and more politicized.

Bevin tried a similar scheme last year, prompting a lawsuit from state Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat now running for governor. Beshear claimed some of Bevin’s changes were unconstitutional. A trial court judge agreed, and the case is now pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

But much of Bevin’s reorganization last year didn’t stick because the Republican-controlled General Assembly didn’t ratify it into law. That’s the reason for the latest executive order, which also will expire if legislators don’t approve it next year.

This week, the Bevin-appointed Board of Education elected Hal Heiner as its chairman. Members cleared the way for Heiner by eliminating the nominating committee for chairman and vice chairman and removing a requirement that aboard member must serve a year before being eligible for those posts.

Heiner, who like Bevin is a wealthy Louisville businessman, resigned as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development cabinet so he could be appointed to the Board of Education in April. Soon after he and other Bevin appointees consolidated power, they forced out respected Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and replaced him with Wayne Lewis, a charter school advocate.

Lewis immediately began trying to put the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville under state control. Like many school systems across the state and nation, it has problems, many of which can be blamed on poverty, family and social issues.

But Jefferson County also has the state’s largest and most powerful teachers’ union. Bevin hates unions and especially teachers unions, which have pushed back against his efforts to cut teacher pension benefits and take over public education.

The latest wrinkle in the takeover attempt is a settlement offer by Lewis, which would leave the local school board with nominal control but give all the real power to Bevin-appointed state officials. That way, if state-ordered “reforms” don’t work, the Bevin crowd can try to avoid responsibility. Watch for that controversy to come to ahead in the next week or two.

Bevin and his appointees are good at pointing out the shortcomings of Louisville’s schools, but they have offered little in the way of a credible plan to improve them. Many suspect the real goal is setting up publicly funded charter schools there.

Charter schools, which operate under different rules than other public schools, have a mixed record of success in other states. What charter schools can do, though, is divert scarce resources from other public schools while funneling taxpayer dollars into corporate pockets. That is a big reason many public school educators are suspicious of charter schools — and Bevin’s motives for promoting them.

Does the governor have financial ties to charter school interests? Nobody knows, because he is the first Kentucky governor in two decades who has refused to make his tax returns public so citizens can see his conflicts of interest.

Is Bevin backing charter schools to promote his political career with Charles Koch and other conservative donors? After all, they love charter schools, and Bevin looks for every opportunity to attend their meetings and curry their favor.

Maybe King Matt is just on a power trip. Whatever the case, somebody needs to check Bevin’s power before he returns Kentucky to the bad old days of politicized public schools that did a better job of enriching adults than educating children.