Return to cronyism? State board sees no need for a national search for Ky. education commissioner

Published 11:00 am Monday, August 20, 2018

Acknowledging that the fix is in — and always has been — might be the most above-board thing the Kentucky Board of Education has done since Gov. Matt Bevin stacked it with a majority of new members the day after the legislature adjourned in April.

The new board immediately railroaded out Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and named Wayne Lewis as interim commissioner, violating the Kentucky Open Records Act in the process.

State school board members said they’re not inclined to conduct a national search for a commissioner — a significant departure from the past — and that they just can’t imagine any other candidate would suit them as well as Lewis, a Bevin administration insider.

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Under the circumstances, conducting a national search would be more charade than real. Recruiting strong candidates would be pretty much impossible when the conclusion is so obviously foregone.

Still Kentuckians should mark this moment as a turning point — well, really, a turning backward — in a long quest to depoliticize decisions about public education and to hire educators based on credentials not connections.

Eliminating even the appearance of cronyism and nepotism in education hiring was a central tenet of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. Kentucky voters later endorsed that change by approving a constitutional amendment that ended the practice of electing state education commissioners.

Lewis, who is on leave from the University of Kentucky where he is an associate professor, stumbled on his first major action as head of the Department of Education, his recommended state takeover of the Jefferson County Public Schools. More recently, Lewis sought a settlement and gave the Jefferson County school board, a deadline of Aug. 1 to respond, a deadline that he has since extended.

Lewis, who has voiced some goals with which no one could disagree, might be as perfect for the job as Bevin’s appointees insist. Unfortunately, his tenure already is marred by the perception that he is carrying out the agenda of Hal Heiner and other long-time critics of the Jefferson County Public Schools who also are advocates of charter schools, a group that includes Bevin.

Heiner, who was defeated by Bevin in the 2015 Republican primary, became Bevin’s education secretary but resigned to join the state school board and has since been elected its chairman.

It’s critically important that the current conflict over Louisville’s schools produces positive change. What happens in Kentucky’s largest city and most powerful economic engine has implications for the whole state.

State board members have indicated they will review Lewis’ performance after six months in the job and then decide how to proceed. We predict they’ll find he’s doing a smashing job.

Lexington Herald-Leader