Republican lawmakers are taking Kentucky back to education’s bad old days

It’s perplexing until you remember that demagoguery has always thrived on parched, narrow minds

By Jamie Lucke, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT — Generations of Kentuckians suffered because education was treated as a political spoil. Schools run for the benefit of adults chained the state to poverty. 

In 1990, the legislature shielded public education from political interference as part of a sweeping reform.

Schools improved, Kentuckians became better educated and Kentucky was held up as a model.

That protection from raw politics is now being stripped away in a spasm of culture-wars histrionics and a Republican drive for even more control.

Why any lawmakers want a return to the bad old days is mystifying, though, on second thought, there’s not much mystery to a power grab or wanting to punish your political adversaries.

This particular power grab is just so shortsighted and wrong: The Senate last week approved transforming the Kentucky Department of Education into a tool of Senate Republicans by obliging the top state school officer to pander to the Senate or become unemployed.

Senate Bill 107, which came out of the Senate 29-4 with three senators not voting, establishes a four-year term for the commissioner of education, and subjects the commissioner’s appointment or reappointment to Senate confirmation.

It’s a bad way to go.

The position of education commissioner was created as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. Voters approved a constitutional amendment abolishing the elected position of state superintendent of public instruction.

The idea was to search the nation for a highly qualified commissioner who would be independent and accountable to the state Board of Education for producing measurable improvements in student learning. 

SB 107 would make the commissioner answerable not even to voters but to 38 members of the state Senate. 

SB 107 also creates a new nominating process for members of the Kentucky Board of Education. The members of the state board are already subject to confirmation by the Senate after nomination by the governor. If SB 107 becomes law, a new committee would recommend state board nominees to the governor.

This power grab is unfolding as Republicans push multiple bills that demonize teachers and sow distrust of public schools. 

Why are Republicans attacking educators and education in a worsening teacher shortage?

The obvious answer is that teachers have been the most effective force challenging the Republicans who control Kentucky’s legislature and dominate its politics.

The more complicated answer is that all these bills pitting parents against educators and promoting false narratives of depraved curriculum and obscene books are part of a long strategy. This strategy is managed by those who would destroy this nation’s public schools and put education in private hands. 

I doubt that many Kentucky lawmakers see how they’re pawns in this long game. The few who do understand the big picture don’t seem to mind if schools and students become collateral damage in their quest to thwart the Kentucky Education Association, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and KY120 United-AFT.  

The legislature enacted the reforms that depoliticized education with bipartisan support. None other than former Senate President David Williams made a moving speech in their favor. 

The law had two major thrusts: 

  • Increase and equalize funding of public schools through a penny increase in the sales tax. 
  • Depoliticize hiring from the district level up and entrust decisions about education to educators who would be insulated from political pressure. 

It worked well.

The law shifted responsibility for hiring school employees from elected school boards to a superintendent who became the board’s only hire. No longer did working in Kentucky schools require knowing the right person or belonging to the right family or political faction. The reforms made half of local school board members ineligible for reelection because they had family members employed by the district.

Schools were freed from the tyranny of nepotism and politics, just as KERA’s funding equalization for the first time gave schools in poor places almost as much money to educate their kids as richer communities had been spending.

That funding equity has been slipping for years as lawmakers and governors eroded the state’s tax base with tax favors called “incentives” to businesses, along with regressive tax cuts such as the income tax cuts enacted in 2018, last year and this month. The funding inequality is now almost as wide as when the famous lawsuit that led to the reform act was filed.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin treated the education commissioner’s office as a political spoil, pressuring out Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and installing a member of his own administration without a national search. On his first day as governor, Democrat Andy Beshear dumped all of Bevin’s board members, the action that seems to have inspired the Senate’s desire to create a nominating committee for the state board.

Borrowing a page from Virginia’s Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Republican Kelly Craft vows to clean house at the “woke” Kentucky Department of Education if she becomes governor. 

I don’t know if all the histrionics can convince Kentuckians that the teachers who hand them a hymnal on Sunday or stand in the grocery line with them are agents of sexual depravity and some ill-defined agenda to lead our youth astray.

The state has put years of effort into convincing Kentuckians that education is the path to a better life, that jobs of the future will require schooling beyond high school, that “education pays.”   

It’s perplexing to see our elected representatives working to turn back the clock to when education was seen as a corrupting influence that would lure kids from the farm or mine by planting big ideas in their heads. Perplexing until you remember that demagoguery has always thrived on parched, narrow minds.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: A statue of frontier surgeon Eprhaim McDowell looked on as the Kentucky Fairness Rally for LGBTQ Rights drew a crowd to the Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 15. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Sarah Ladd)