Republicans stepped up criticism of Kentucky's Democratic governor on Thursday for a lapse in appointments to the state school board, reviving a contentious issue but with a twist.
On his first day in office in late 2019, Gov. Andy Beshear overhauled the Kentucky Board of Education, upholding a campaign promise while drawing criticism from Republicans and some others. Now the governor is drawing GOP ire for inaction in dealing with the board's membership.
The election-year dust-up surfaced this week when the Courier Journal reported that two seats have sat idle for more than a year on the state school board, which develops and adopts regulations governing Kentucky’s public school districts. It comes as Beshear seeks reelection to a second term this year against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron in a campaign drawing national attention.
GOP leaders say at least one of those board positions — by law — should go to a Republican.
In a letter sent to Beshear on Wednesday, Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Mac Brown pointed to the governor's “legal obligation” to ensure that board appointments reflect statewide voter registration. Brown cheekily added that he’d be “happy to send you a list of Republicans if you’re having trouble finding one.” The GOP surpassed the Democratic Party in statewide voter registration last year.
In his own statement Thursday, Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers referred to the lack of state school board appointments by the governor as “purely political.” Cameron took to social media to accuse the governor of being “committed to putting his political agenda in our classrooms.”
Beshear gave no ground when responding to the Republican criticism on Thursday, while signaling that an appointment for at least one of the positions could come soon.
“I know where this is coming from, and as governor I don’t answer to either political party," he said at his weekly news conference. “I answer to the people of Kentucky.”
The governor pointed to a constitutional provision that board members serve “until their successors are appointed.” And he noted that he appointed Republicans to the state school board during his term.
Beshear said he has an interview planned soon with an applicant who comes “highly recommended.”
“We’ve got to make sure that we have people on that board that are willing to do the right thing, even when it’s hard, because supporting our educators when they’ve become a political target is absolutely critical,” the governor said.
Education issues will be at the forefront of the hotly contested governor's race, hinging in part on statewide test scores that showed setbacks among many students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans have criticized state education leaders, accusing them of promoting “woke” ideologies.
Beshear has made public education a top priority throughout his term, pushing for higher teacher salaries and state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds, The GOP-led legislature increased the state’s main funding formula for K-12 schools, but the amount was considerably less than what Beshear proposed.
The governor on Thursday pledged to continue pushing for increased spending on public education if he wins a second term.
“In most of our counties, our school systems are the largest employer,” Beshear said. “And so when we fail to pay our teachers that living wage, we not only shortchange our kids, we impoverish our own communities.”
Cameron has said he will push to raise starting pay for Kentucky teachers and reduce their administrative paperwork if elected governor.
Meanwhile, Republicans saw this week's flap over state school board appointments as another opportunity to go on the offensive on education issues.
In April 2022, the terms of four members expired on the 11 voting-member board. A few weeks later, two of them were reappointed by the governor to new four-year terms and won Senate confirmation this year.
The other two seats weren't filled, and for nearly a year, the previously appointed members have not participated in the board's meetings as members, the state education department said Thursday. The board has continued to “satisfy all quorum requirements” for its meetings and official business, it said.
This week, the two board members left in limbo were invited back to participate until new members are appointed, the department said. Alvis Johnson indicated he wasn't interested in continuing to serve on the board due to health reasons and submitted a letter of resignation, it said. Claire Batt indicated she is interested in continuing to serve and will be included in board business until a successor is named, it said.
Under state law, both seats need to be filled by women, and one of them needs to be a minority, to satisfy a requirement that the state school board reflect Kentucky's gender, racial and political makeup.
Kentucky governor and Democratic candidate for re-election Andy Beshear speaks to supporters during a stop of his statewide bus tour in Owensboro, Ky., Friday, May 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)