State Senate Confirms School Choice Advocate To Kentucky Board of Education By Slim Margin
On the final day of the legislative session, state senators confirmed Governor Matt Bevin's nine appointments to the Kentucky Board of Education. The Senate confirmed eight of those appointments by a concurrence vote Thursday afternoon, then unexpectedly singled out the resolution to confirm the appointment of appointee Gary Houchens for a full debate.
"In Mr. Houchens in particular, we have someone who has publicly warred with our educators," said Louisville Democratic Senator Morgan McGarvey. "His social media account, his op-eds are numerous and clearly outline his version of education in Kentucky. I say 'education' because they don't outline a vision for 'public education.'"
Houchens, an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, has been an open supporter of school choice measures, including charter schools and scholarship tax credits to help low-income students attend private schools. He often writes in support of school choice on his blog.
"If we are going to start making the reasons for which we do not confirm, that we don't like them, they're the opposite party, or we don't agree with their writings, we're going to end up kind of like Washington," said Senate President Robert Stivers II (R-Clay) in support of Houchens' confirmation.
Houchens said in a Tweet that he rejects McGarvey's charge that his support of school choice measures means he is opposed to public education.
I reject the notion that Kentuckians who support pension reform, or giving parents more options in who educates their children, or giving local district leaders more autonomy are enemies of public education. 3/— Gary Houchens (@gary_houchens) March 28, 2019
The manner in which Bevin made his appointments to the Board has also raised eyebrows, as first reported by the left-leaning media outlet Forward Kentucky.
"I'm asking you to look at the way in which these members of the board of education were appointed," McGarvey implored senators during floor debate.
Houchens and fellow board member Alesa Johnson were originally appointed in 2016 as at-large members of the board, with terms that would expire in 2020.
The Kentucky Department of Education has confirmed that in 2018, Bevin re-appointed those members to district seats, starting new four year terms that will expire in 2022. A KDE spokeswoman said there is no law that prohibits such re-appointments.
Bevin's seven other Board appointees have been serving since the governor submitted their names just days after the 2018 legislative session adjourned — allowing those members to start their terms nearly a year before they were ultimately confirmed.
Immediately after those new board members took office, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure, and was replaced by Bevin's appointee Wayne Lewis who quickly put forth a proposal for a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools.
McGarvey said Thursday that the previous week the Senate minority office made an open records request to the Kentucky Department of Education to receive emails regarding Pruitt's resignation and the proposal to takeover Jefferson County Public Schools. McGarvey said that request was denied late Wednesday afternoon.
Houchens responded in an email statement that he was the only member of KBE present at the April 2018 meeting to vote against the agreement that led to Pruitt's resignation.
"I think I've repeatedly demonstrated my independence as a board member," Houchens wrote.
The final vote on Houchens confirmation was 19-17, with some Republicans crossing party lines.
Senator Robin Webb (D-Clay) explained her nay vote, lamenting that the process for confirming governor appointees has changed over her 20 years as a Kentucky state representative and senator.
"I yearn for the good old days when we used to have hearings on these people, and they'd actually come to the committee of jurisdiction and present themselves," Webb said.
Correction: This post originally incorrectly attributed earlier reporting to Kentucky Forward. The story was reported by Forward Kentucky.