Decades before the Kentucky Board of Education forced out former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt two years before his contract was up, the legislature passed a massive overhaul of the state education system, including measures to try and shield Kentucky’s top education official from political influence.
Before the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, Kentucky’s top education official was called the superintendent of public instruction, a position that was elected through a statewide vote every four years — the same years that the governor and other statewide officials were elected.
David Karem, a former Democratic state Senator who helped craft the education reform law, said that the old superintendents of public instruction were more focused on running for higher office than education policy.
“People could run on the issue of the day as opposed to necessarily focusing on, in essence, a global dealing with the problems of delivering a quality education system in Kentucky,” Karem said.
“That’s not real sexy to some people, but it’s critical to a quality educational program.”
In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a momentous ruling, ordering the legislature to overhaul the entire education system.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by 66 school districts alleging that the legislature hadn’t adequately funded public schools.
The order to reform the entire education system came as a surprise to many, says former Senator David Karem.
“That gave us the opportunity to go ahead and restructure in its entirety and that gave us the opportunity to look at a system that would be more free from politics, that would be more professional in our vision,” Karem said. “I really think before that, there was an unclear concept of who was in charge.”
Instead of an elected superintendent for public instruction, starting in 1990, Kentucky has had a board of education with 11 members appointed by the governor to staggered terms. And that board then hires an education commissioner.
After a nationwide search, a special committee hired Thomas Boysen to be the first education commissioner. He was the superintendent of schools in San Diego County, California before that.
“I said this baby KERA is yours, and I’m here to raise it in the way you want it to grow up,” Boysen said.
He has since returned to California and works as an education consultant.
During his four-year tenure as commissioner, Boysen was in charge of implementing the new reforms, which, among other things, allowed him to press charges against local education officials for nepotism and corruption.
“I can’t remember a case where I had anybody from the governor’s office tell me ‘you have to do this,'” he said. “I had no case where anybody from the legislature or the governor’s office ever told me you should hire this person. None of that. I guess it was so clear in the wake of KERA that that was inappropriate. I was free.”
But Boysen also said that policy-wise, it’s important for the education commissioner to line up with what the governor wants.
“That’s the way the system is set up and I think it’s better to have the risk of this kind of very dramatic swing than to have the stasis that can happen when you have competition between the elected state superintendent and the governor,” Boysen said.
That “dramatic swing” refers to the recent departure of Kentucky’s education commissioner Stephen Pruitt.
After Bevin filled seven vacancies on the state board of education last week, his appointees had full control of the board for the first time.
A day later, the board held a closed door meeting and afterwards, Pruitt resigned.
Former state Sen. Karem said that move disrupted the political independence of the commissioner job and will hurt the state when it’s trying to fill the job in the future.
“That would give you pause as a potential candidate,” Karem said. “Am I going to leave a job that I’m enjoying, but I would like the challenge of Kentucky. But wait a minute, what’s my comfort level that I will be able to fulfill my whole contract?”
But former commissioner Boysen said it’s the governor’s prerogative to appoint board of education members who will carry out his agenda.
“The governor doesn’t have a long time to make his mark and if he feels pushback, he has to decide how to deal with that,” Boysen said. “If this were some sort of unwise use of power, then that will shake out in elections to come.”
The board appointed University of Kentucky professor Wayne Lewis to be interim commissioner while it conducts a search for a new one. Lewis has said he will apply for the job.