Republican Gov. Matt Bevin remade the 12-member Kentucky Board of Education on Monday, heartening conservatives who want to see dramatic changes in Kentucky’s public schools, such as publicly-funded charter schools and a possible state takeover of the Jefferson County Public Schools.
Bevin issued an executive order appointing seven new members to the board, including Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner — who resigned effectively immediately to take the post — and the governor’s own former communications director, Amanda Stamper. All seven seats were vacant as of Friday because the terms of the members appointed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear expired.
Bevin previously was able to name 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 board will meet in executive session Tuesday to discuss a personnel matter. Vice Chairman Rich Gimmel declined to say if Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who was hired when the board was controlled by Beshear appointees, would be fired or told to quit. (Pruitt’s office declined to comment.)
“I will say I have the highest regard for Dr. Pruitt as an education professional,”said Gimmel, who is chairman of Atlas Machine and Supply Inc. in Louisville. “He’s done a masterful job for the past two years leading us through the difficult process of establishing new assessment and accountability standards which were mandated by the federal government. He is a man of tremendous integrity, work ethic and passion for students.”
“I can tell you that, for some time now, the dialogue in Frankfort has been driven by the adults, and frankly, we adults sometimes haven’t acted very adult-like,” Gimmel said. “My hope is that the focus will now turn to the kids. We haven’t been able to improve their academic outcomes, as a whole, in many Kentucky school districts for quite some time now. In fact, some have worsened significantly. My hope is that we can work with and support teachers, maybe in some new ways — looking at best practices around the country — to improve outcomes in the classroom.”
The Kentucky Education Association in a Facebook post Monday night said it thought the purpose of an executive session during the Kentucky Board of Education meeting was to fire Pruitt. But the post said the KEA thought Pruitt was effective and should continue as Commissioner of Education.
Several of Bevin’s new appointees have been critical in the past of Kentucky’s schools. Heiner, for example, then a wealthy Louisville businessman, 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.”
This new Board of Education seems likely to revive the debate over charter schools “that has stalled in Kentucky, or come close to stalling,” said Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Lexington that favors “school choice.” At least two of Bevin’s board appointees have worked with the Bluegrass Institute.
“I think (Bevin’s move) is critically important because the Department of Education sets the vision for our schools, and these are individuals who will bring a sense of reform and urgency and competency that we have not seen in far too long,” Waters said. “Unfortunately, we have an educational system that has been stuck in the 1950s.”
Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, might need a management takeover by the state Department of Education, Waters said. An initial state review of the school district’s practices uncovered more than 20 “significant deficiencies,” including low-performing schools and racial disparities, but state education officials don’t seem to be moving very quickly to address the problems, he said.
“We’ve got to have a plan that’s more than just throwing more money at the schools,” Waters said. “We’re going to spend $5 billion on education in Kentucky this year and another $5 billion next year. We’re going to spend half our General Fund on education. If you throw in higher ed, that’s 60 cents for every dollar in the state budget. So you have to wonder, with that level of spending, why classrooms still don’t have the textbooks they need, and why our teachers are digging into their own pockets to provide resources for their students.”
Critics in the legislature said Monday they fear that Bevin, who has feuded with school leaders, will use the Board of Education to promote his political agenda.
“So he has loaded it up with charter school proponents, that’s what he has done,” said state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a member of the House budget subcommittee that oversees K-12 schools.
“I can tell you that everyone I have talked to in the last few hours was caught completely off guard by Hal Heiner’s role in all this,” Flood said. “You have to wonder what the strategy is here, unless they just decided that they needed someone who knows how to stay on message on charter schools, and that’s Hal Heiner’s job now.”
Charter school opponents say the independently established schools drain tax money from regular public schools, while charter advocates say they provide families with a much-needed choice when regular schools are failing. Kentucky legislators have approved charter schools in the state, but they ended their 2018 session on Saturday without establishing a necessary revenue stream for them.
Although voters in Kentucky elect their own school boards that wield considerable power over local schools, the Kentucky Board of Education approves hundreds of rules and regulations that decide how schools operate statewide, said David Karem, a former state Board of Education member and Democratic state senator from Louisville.
“I can tell you that when I was on the board, we passed regulation after regulation on all sorts of subjects that affected every school in the state of Kentucky,” Karem said. “The Department of Education is also responsible for providing standards for how curriculum is to be taught. So that can have a very significant impact on how science is taught in our classrooms, for example, if you get what I’m driving at.”
Apart from Heiner and Stamper, who was the governor’s communications director for two years until she left in January, the new Bevin board appointees are:
▪ Kathy Gornik of Lexington, the retired co-founder and president of Thiel Audio, a high-performance audio equipment manufacturer that she helped launch in 1977. Gornik is presently a non-voting adviser to the Board of Education and chairwoman of Newton’s Attic, a Lexington nonprofit where youths can study engineering, robotics and physics. She also serves on the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board.
In a 2015 profile in the Herald-Leader, Gornik explained why she erected an enormous sign in her front yard on Georgetown Road celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was the original document laying out the right of the people to be left alone by government, she said.
“I just so deeply appreciate life in America, the protection of individual rights and limited government, and what that means to ordinary people like myself,” Gornik said.
▪ Tracey Cusick of Union, the mother of 10 children and presently the parental adviser to the Board of Education.
▪ Joe Papalia of Louisville, chief executive officer of Munich Welding and Deposition Technology Innovations. Papalia also is a member of the Council on Postsecondary Education.
▪ Laura Timberlake of Ashland, chief operating officer for Big Sandy Distribution/Big Sandy Superstores, a furniture store chain.
▪ Ben Cundiff of Cadiz, who was first appointed by Bevin in May 2016 to fill an unexpired term. He is the owner of Cundiff Farms and also has been a practicing attorney and chairman and CEO of Trigg County Farmers Bank.
In a 2016 interview with Kentucky Teacher, Cundiff said he wants to see the best college graduates compete to be public school teachers — with $80,000 starting salaries to attract them, instead of $30,000.
“I think the major changes, all of these things, cost money,” Cundiff said. “Money won’t solve it, but you have to increase the preparation of the teacher core. I think if we don’t recognize that it’s important enough to apply more of our resources to education, then we’ll continue to be toward the bottom of the list in education.”