Commentary

Calling all toadies: Kentucky needs a new education commissioner

August 3, 2023 5:30 am

Education Commissioner Jason Glass addressed the House Education Committee earlier this year. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

Jason Glass became a target in the culture wars, but the real casualty is Kentucky’s public schools.

Republicans ran off an education commissioner who openly challenged their anti-LGBTQ agenda. Under the circumstances, Glass’s announcement that he will step down in late September was not surprising. It does raise a troubling question: 

What self-respecting educator will want the job, having seen what happened to Glass, and now that the commissioner must serve at the pleasure of the state Senate’s Republican majority?

Lawmakers thoroughly politicized the selection process earlier this year by enacting a law that Glass acknowledges helped spur him to leave with a year remaining on his four-year contract. 

For the first time, under this new law, education commissioners will be subject to four-year renewable terms and the state Senate has final say over their hiring and firing. 

Previously the appointed Kentucky Board of Education hired the commissioner and set contract terms, a process created in 1990 by the Kentucky Education Reform Act to replace the elected superintendent of public instruction with a professional educator chosen through a national search.

This latest change will make it harder to attract the caliber of education leader that Kentuckians have become accustomed to these last 30 years.

More than credentials or experience, toadyism will become the essential qualification — along with a willingness to pander to whatever bigotry de jure tops Republican lawmakers’ menu. Currently they’re into bullying LGBTQ kids and demonizing teachers as purveyors of indecency. But it’s not a stretch to think the Republicans who control Kentucky’s Senate might want schools to teach that human slavery had its good points as Florida has decreed.

At the very least, Republican lawmakers hanker for a commissioner who would reassure them that privatization, union busting and more tax cuts would be just the ticket for education in Kentucky. 

Glass, who also has said he’s leaving because he didn’t want tobe part of implementing the dangerous and unconstitutional anti-LGBTQI law that the legislature passed this last session,” is Kentucky’s fourth education commissioner in eight years.

The rapid turnover at the top has been fueled, at least in part, by partisan political pressures

I called up Brad Hughes, an astute observer of Kentucky education, to hear his thoughts. “Candidates are going to take a hard look at the current climate regardless of who wins the governor’s race in November,” says Hughes, formerly spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

The politics of the moment will dissuade some potential commissioners from applying, he said, while the uncertainty and hostility generated by hyper-partisanship filter “right down to the classroom teacher.”

The Senate has long had the power to churn the state school board by rejecting a governor’s appointees, a power it will not hesitate to use if Democrat Andy Beshear fends off Republican challenger Daniel Cameron in November. 

“The uncertainty will not encourage kids in college to pursue a teaching career. To me that’s almost as big a fear as the control factor in the Kentucky Department of Education,” says Hughes.

As far a I can tell, Glass got high marks from teachers, ably led a bulky bureaucracy and supported deeper, more personalized approaches to learning. He will become Western Michigan University’s associate vice president of teaching and learning. 

Michigan’s gain is Kentucky’s loss.

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Jamie Lucke
Jamie Lucke

Jamie Lucke has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist. Her editorials for the Lexington Herald-Leader won Walker Stone, Sigma Delta Chi and Green Eyeshade awards. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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