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Ky. has a new top education official, after third commissioner pushed out in five years

A woman in a dark skirt-suit speaks at a podium. She's surrounded by posters that read "Kentucky Department of Education."
Jess Clark
Robin Fields Kinney addresses reporters during her first day as interim commissioner of education.

Robin Fields Kinney is the fifth person to lead the Kentucky Department of Education in as many years. Kinney told reporters her goal as interim commissioner is to “keep the train on the tracks."

Her appointment comes after Jason Glass left his roleas education commissioner over his objections to a new sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ law known as Senate Bill 150, and other disagreements with the GOP-led General Assembly.

Glass was the third permanent commissioner since 2018 to be forced out or leave amid political turmoil. His predecessor, Wayne Lewis, was ousted in 2019 when Andy Beshear, a Democrat, overhauled the state board of education and put in his own appointees in his first act as governor.

Lewis’ predecessor Stephen Pruitt was forced to resign in 2018, when then-Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, got his appointees on the state board.

Including interim commissioners, Kinney is the fifth person to lead the department of around 1,000 employees since 2018. A Frankfort native, attorney and longtime state government employee, Kinney said her goals while in the position are to “really keep the train on the tracks and keep progress moving,” and provide “excellent customer service” to school districts.

The last commissioner search took about eight months, and Kinney said she expects the timeline for the current search to be similar. That means she will likely be at the helm during the 2024 legislative session.

Lawmakers put Glass in the hot seat during the previous two legislative sessions over his support for policies that are inclusive of LGTBQ+ students and students of color.

Kinney said she is comfortable testifying for lawmakers, and has already started conversations with some representatives.

“I think the first step for me is to get my name and face in front of them. Let them know that KDE is here to answer their questions, provide data, and really importantly, to make sure that they don't make uninformed decisions,” she said.

She said her priorities for the coming session are to increase state funding for public schools, or SEEK, get lawmakers to better fund transportation and universal preschool.

Asked if she would support LGBTQ+ students in her role, Kinney responded that she would serve “all students.”

“Whether we're talking about LGBTQIA+, or we're talking about students that come from a lower socioeconomic background, or we're talking about students that have special needs, we value each and every one of them. And that won't change,” she said.

When SB 150 passedin April 2023, Glass vowed to hold a “summit” in support of LGBTQ+ students this fall. Kinney said that event will not be happening while she is interim.

“But it will be on the list of things that we share with the incoming, new permanent commissioner,” she said.

Asked about how the churn in leadership has impacted the department, Kinney said longtime employees are “resilient,” but that it has been “challenging.”

“I think a lot of people would like continuity,” she said.

The Kentucky Board of Education is still looking for a search firm to conduct a nationwide hunt for the next permanent commissioner.

That person will have to be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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