Gov. Matt Bevin is doubling down on the use of executive power to expand his authority over the future of Kentucky’s public schools.
Bevin quietly altered or abolished several education boards this month through executive order, reasoning that the changes will streamline bureaucracy and enhance student learning.
But his main political foe is calling the shakeup illegal.
“The Bevin administration continues its all-out assault on public education,” Attorney General Andy Beshear told the Courier Journal.
Here’s what you need to know:
What did Bevin do?
Eleven state panels were affected by the executive order issued by Bevin on July 13.
Under the changes, nine of the boards or councils — including those created by statute — are abolished. The majority will be reconstituted with new members appointed by Bevin.
Read more: JCPS school ‘dungeon’ shows need for state takeover, Wayne Lewis says
As governor, Bevin already has the power to appoint the board members, but with the new order who can (and can’t) serve on many of the boards will change.
Why does this matter?
The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 set out to protect the state’s public schools from the whims of partisan politics. The law established independent boards with staggered terms in order to reduce political influence.
But in recent months, some have worried that politics are back.
In April, former education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure just days after the governor appointed new members to the Kentucky Board of Education. Then, just two weeks into the job on an acting basis, Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, the biggest district in Kentucky.
Which boards are affected?
- Council on Postsecondary Education – altered
- Kentucky Board of Education – altered
- Standards and Assessments Process Review Committee – abolished and reconstituted
- Council for Community Education – abolished
- Educational Professional Standards Board – abolished and reconstituted
- School Curriculum, Assessment and Accountability Council – abolished and reconstituted
- State Advisory Council for Exceptional Children – abolished and reconstituted
- Read-to-Achieve Council – abolished and reconstituted
- Gifted and Talented Education Advisory Council – abolished and reconstituted
- Early Childhood Advisory Council – abolished and reconstituted
- Center for School Safety – abolished and reconstituted
How does the executive order work?
When issuing the order, Bevin cited a state law that allows a governor to carry out a reorganization plan while the Kentucky General Assembly is not in session, if the changes will “promote greater economy, efficiency and improved administration.”
Such changes, however, are only temporary under the law. If the legislature does not approve the reorganization during its next session, the changes expire and the affected panels revert back to the structures in place before the executive order was issued.
See also: Feds want to know what you think about Bevin plan to overhaul Medicaid
Has he done this before?
Bevin has used this law numerous times since taking office in 2016. Several of those orders have been challenged in court, including changes to the University of Louisville board and to the board that oversees the state’s pension systems.
In 2017, Bevin issued a similar order affecting the state’s education boards, prompting a lawsuit from Beshear. That case is now before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
After the General Assembly failed to approve the reorganization during its 2018 session, the changes expired, prompting the new executive order.
Is the executive order legal?
Beshear, a Democrat running for governor in 2019, told the Courier Journal that the new order further erodes the independence granted to Kentucky’s public schools.
“Last year, Gov. Bevin attempted a take over of our state education boards, which are independent under the law and were supposed to serve our students and not the governor,” Beshear said. “The trial court declared part of that attempt was unconstitutional, and the case is currently before the Supreme Court. We will continue to fight for our state’s future, its students and its teachers.”
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In response, Bevin spokeswoman Elizabeth Kuhn accused Beshear of playing politics.
“Candidate Beshear can continue to use public education as a political football to advance his personal ambitions, while Gov. Bevin will remain steadfast in his efforts to implement meaningful education reforms that give all Kentucky students the best chance for success,” Kuhn said.
Sheryl Snyder, a Louisville attorney who has represented both Democratic and Republican governors, said Bevin was acting within his rights as leader of the state’s executive branch when he issued the order.
“The governor of Kentucky has broad powers to reorganize the executive branch of state government,” Snyder said. “… There are exceptions, such as university boards, but the entities reorganized in this order seem to be within the governor’s statutory authority.”
How will the changes affect schools?
Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, said he is “excited” about the changes made to his board, including the requirements that there be at least one member whom has been affected by school violence or a lockdown incident.
But several others involved in Kentucky education expressed confusion about how the changes will help.
“We’re anxious to better understand the intended impacts that the governor expects to see,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee, a public education advocacy group. “That’s not clear in the order.”
One possible effect? Boards could become less geographically diverse.
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Given Bevin’s frequent clashes with Louisville and its leaders, that could affect whether the needs of JCPS — the state’s largest district — are considered.
For example, state law currently uses Kentucky Supreme Court districts to ensure broad geographic representation on the state education board. The law also states a person’s occupation cannot be considered when making appointments.
Under Bevin’s changes, board members will be chosen, in part, based on their profession. At least three members must have experience in education, while at least another three must have “leadership experience in business,” including one member with a background as an entrepreneur. (Those changes won’t take effect until the current board members’ terms expire.)
“It’s unclear why it’s necessary and what it might do to balancing membership over time, geographically,” Ramsey said.
What else might the changes do?
Others said they see a clear motive behind the changes.
Former state education board Chairman Roger Marcum said the executive order supports an agenda held by Bevin and state education board member Hal Heiner to “wrest further control over the state’s public schools.”
Heiner served as secretary of Bevin’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet before joining the board in April. (He was one of nine board members to vote in favor of accepting Pruitt’s sudden resignation.)
“Other people can hold title and positions,” Marcum said. “But any major decisions that are made, I guarantee they’re coming from those two individuals.”
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Marcum said changes to the state’s Educational Professional Standards Board, which investigates educator misconduct and oversees teacher preparation and certification, are especially concerning.
Since the 1990s, the agency has been independent of the Kentucky Department of Education, but under the new structure Lewis will become the board’s “executive secretary” and attend all meetings. All agency staff will become department employees.
“The end game I think for all of this … is to privatize what’s been known as public education,” Marcum said, noting that Bevin, Heiner and Lewis each support charter schools, which often hire teachers that haven’t followed the traditional route to becoming an educator.
State law provides for an alternative certification process already, but Marcum said charter supporters may want to make changes to a process they find “cumbersome and time consuming.”
What happens next?
The Bevin administration will likely draft a bill based on the executive order to be considered by the General Assembly in 2019.
Ramsey, of the Prichard Committee, said she hopes legislators will devote time next session to discussing the likely impact of Bevin’s order.
“What sets this apart are the policy changes to long-standing law without the benefit of public discussion,” Ramsey said. “… Citizen voice is important in the decision-making for our state and the executive order clearly begins to scale back representation by citizens on these various bodies.”
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