Based on their experience, Gov. Matt Bevin’s selections for the Kentucky Board of Education suggest an increased focus on workforce preparedness while aiming to bring charter schools to the state. But the board has little experience in public K-12 education.
The 11-member board aligns with a focus on training students for STEM jobs, trade fields and other in-demand skills by businesses. Bevin appointed six new members on Monday.
At least four board members have engineering degrees, and at least six have served in an executive role for a business. A reappointed member, Alesa Johnson, serves as the chief workforce solutions officer at Somerset Community College, a division that focuses on technical training.
Members have mentioned workforce readiness as a top priority. Monday night, member Joe Papalia spoke at a town hall at Atherton High School, saying graduation requirements should focus on preparing students for careers and helping them determine what career path best fits their skills and interests.
Johnson said in a 2017 interview, “Today’s and tomorrow’s high-demand job sectors stress the importance of placing equal value on career/ technical education and traditional general academics. It is imperative that Kentucky develop rigorous, seamless pathways among K-12 and two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions to ensure successful workforce placement.”
Johnson said such a pipeline would “go a long way” in reducing homelessness and poverty.
Ben Cundiff, another reappointed board member, has said business needs should be considered in what schools teach children so students will prepared for in-demand jobs upon graduation.
“I think businesses have finally looked the bear in the face in terms of realizing that the education system is not putting out the people the businesses need for what they have to do to compete in the world,” Cundiff said in a 2016 interview. “Businesses have gotten smacked so hard by that, I think they’re willing to take their time and their money to try to help cooperate with the educational process to everybody’s benefit.”
However, the board has little experience in public K-12 education. Only one board member, Gary Houchens, has served in a public school district — as a teacher and administrator in Warren, Bourbon and Simpson County Public Schools.
Interim education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who was selected by the board Tuesday — but is not a board member — taught in public schools in Louisiana and North Carolina.
In comparison, four of the six former board members whom Bevin chose not to reappoint had worked in public schools as teachers, administrators or both.
Other states have specific requirements to ensure education experience on their state education board. For example, Indiana’s 11-person board has a guaranteed seat for the state superintendent, who is elected by voters, and is required to have at least six other appointees with professional education experience.
At least another seven states require at least some state board of education members to have education experience, National Association of State Boards of Education President and CEO Kristen Amundson told Insider. Only Nebraska specifically prohibits teachers on the board, Amundson said.
Other Bevin-appointed overseeing boards don’t have a similar lack of subject matter experience. Bevin announced new appointees for multiple state councils Tuesday, all of whom have clear experience in the field. For example, the three new appointees to the Kentucky Child Care Advisory Council are an early childhood manager, a chief operating officer for a preschool and an early childhood education specialist.
Several state education board members have served on education-related boards or volunteered in schools. Amanda Stamper was a PTA president in Fayette County Public Schools. New member Hal Heiner was the education and workforce development secretary before resigning Monday. But the group of 11 in charge of Kentucky’s 173 public school districts has little classroom experience.
Some members — Papalia, Kathy Gornik, Tracey Cusick — have experience serving in non-voting advisory roles to the education board.
Papalia sent his kids to private schools, Rich Gimmel’s children attended public and private schools, while at least one, Stamper, sent hers to a public school. At least three — Gimmel, Papalia, Johnson — went to public high schools themselves.
At least five members are charter school proponents, serving on boards of charter schools and groups focused on advocating for charters. Johnson said people frequently approach her with challenges, with one challenge being the lack of school choice.
“We must give parents a wide variety of high-quality school options to meet the educational needs of children,” Johnson said in 2017. “We have to move beyond models that do not support positive outcomes to models where all students may achieve their dreams and become who they were created to be.”
Lewis, the interim commissioner, said shortly after receiving the job Tuesday that it is “no secret” he’s a proponent of charter schools, which receive public funding but are exempt from some rules that regulate public schools.
Lewis, along with new board Chair Milton Seymore and Heiner, made up the board of Kentucky Charter Schools Association in 2013. The three, along with Cundiff and Houchens, have spoken in favor of charters in the years since.
“Kentucky leaders can begin fulfilling the promise of education equality through our platform: charter schools in west Louisville, education savings accounts for families and expanded choice through vouchers for pre-kindergarten,” Seymore said in 2015.
Seymore, Cundiff and Houchens all served as KBE representatives on Kentucky’s Charter Schools Advisory Council, which Lewis chairs. The council makes recommendations to the board regarding charter school regulations. Cundiff also sits on the board of two charter schools in Nashville.
Several have ties to Bevin, either through working in his administration or donating to his campaign.
Heiner ran the education and workforce development cabinet in the Bevin administration, while Stamper is Bevin’s former communications director. Papalia’s wife, Bridget Papalia, is the education cabinet’s general counsel, per her LinkedIn page. Lewis also worked at the education cabinet before becoming interim commissioner
The majority of the board hasn’t made sizable campaign contributions to any party or candidate, but the five who did all donated to Bevin’s campaign or inaugural fund, according to public records. Gimmel, Heiner, Gornik and Papalia have all donated at least $500 to Bevin for his 2014 senate or his 2015 governor’s campaigns. Cundiff has already donated $2,000 to Bevin’s unannounced 2019 re-election bid for governor.
Of the six former board members Bevin, a Republican, chose not to reappoint, four had donated to former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Former board chair Mary Gwen Wheeler had donated $4,000, and former member Nawanna Privett and her husband had donated a total of $15,000.
Correction: This post has been corrected to note that Rich Gimmel’s children attended public and private schools. This correction was delayed due to technical issues.
Disclosure: Mary Gwen Wheeler is a major donor to the nonprofit Insider Media Group.