Amid Walkouts, Charter Fight, Kentucky Commissioner Forced to Resign

By Daarel Burnette II — April 18, 2018 4 min read
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Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, an affable former science teacher who led the state through an upending of its school accountability system, dramatic budget cuts, and teacher walkouts over pensions, abruptly resigned under pressure Tuesday.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin appointed seven new state board of education members Monday, several of whom, local reports say, want to expedite the growth of the state’s charter schools and take over Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. Pruitt, who took office in September 2015, reportedly disagreed with the board’s direction and resigned during a four-hour behind-closed-doors board meeting.

Bevin cited the state’s widening achievement gap as cause for forcing Pruitt out of office while also attempting to keep political distance from the resignation. Kentucky’s commissioner is hired and fired by the board.

“What the board decides to do is entirely their call,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “My job is to put the right people on the right boards and then trust them to do the job.”

The state’s teachers’ union and Democratic Party quickly seized on Pruitt’s resignation to unleash a hail of attacks on Bevin who is already under fire for referring last week to teachers who walked off the job as leaving children vulnerable to ingesting poison and sexual assault. Several of the state’s many conservative legislators are up for election this fall, and Democrats there are seeking to exploit the uproar over teacher pensions, charter schools and budget cuts for political gain.

“Despite the outcry of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, today Gov. Matt Bevin continued his offensive against public education, this time through proxies and behind closed doors,” Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Wikler said in a statement. “Dr. Stephen Pruitt has been a strong and effective champion for our students and public schools. Forcing an honorable and highly qualified man to resign from his position without any cause is contrary to the best interests of students across the commonwealth.”

The board appointed as interim commissioner Wayne Lewis, the chairman of the state’s charter school advisory board, a former middle and high school K-12 teacher, and an African American and Africana studies professor at the University of Kentucky. He will be paid $150,000, which is $90,000 less than what Pruitt made.

“My time in teaching from my first week in the classroom is what convinced me more than anything that the system is broken,” Lewis said in an interview with the Courier-Journal last year. “There’s only so much you can do within a classroom or a school district.”

Several things hang in the balance in Kentucky this year. The state’s academic gains in the last decade have backslid amid the collapse of its coal industry, budget cuts to its school system, and a widening opioid crisis.

The legislature last year passed sweeping changes to its unusual 28-year-old school governance structure. The lawmakers boosted the powers of school boards to improve low-performing schools and minimized the powers of the hundreds of parent-teacher school councils, which in years past hired principals, selected curriculum, set a school’s budget, and experimented with new teaching methods.

At the same time, Pruitt led the state through a restructuring of its school accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into effect this fall. And late this year, at the governor’s direction, Pruitt slashed close to 17 percent of the education department’s budget, laying off scores of employees. He spoke openly about how the layoffs would hinder the department’s abilities to implement the legislatures’ many tasks at hand.

His successor will face a number of challenges. Among them is a much-anticipated audit the state’s department of education is conducting of Jefferson County Public School’s finances. The state’s board is considering, based on the audit’s results, whether or not to wrest control from the district’s school board.

Also, Kentucky last year became one of the last states in the nation to allow for charter schools. That expansion is expected to take place in Louisville, a process the state’s education department will have a heavy hand in.

Pruitt, the former chief of staff of Georgia’s department of education, was hired two months before Bevin took office.

Known for his wry humor, frank talk and bullish advocacy of the sciences, Pruitt spent the bulk of his tenure traveling the state attempting to get disparate groups of advocates to agree on the direction of the state’s public schools. At state superintendent gatherings, he spoke at length about how to work with district officials to upend business as usual.

“During his time as state chief, he has remained focused on doing what is best for children, from closing the achievement gap and increasing career pathways to rethinking how to deliver assessments,” Council of Chief State School Officers Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller said in a statement.

Tuesday evening, Pruitt, according to the Lexington Herald Leader, said to a gathered group of department officials, state board members, and supporters that he “felt like he made a difference.”

“It is what it is,” Pruitt said. “When I came here I knew it (my dismissal) was always an option.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.