Kentucky Teachers Just Elected a New Governor — But His Education Policies Might Not Win

Teachers in Kentucky are feelin’ good as hell. Their organizing efforts helped a Democrat — current Attorney General Andy Beshear — unseat the nation’s most unpopular governor in a state that Donald Trump carried by 30 points in 2016. While current Governor Matt Bevin requested a recanvass, educators are enjoying the catharsis of their success, and hoping for a pay raise, higher levels of state funding for K-12 education, and better outcomes for their students. 

photo of Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear visiting a school in the state

Photo of Beshear via his Instagram

Unfortunately, the actual impact of this election on students in Kentucky will be minimal unless Governor-elect Beshear pursues bipartisan cooperation on education issues, which will be a challenge as he works with a Republican-dominated legislature. 

Beshear has promised an ambitious and expensive education policy agenda that includes reducing class sizes and giving a $2,000 pay raise to every teacher. But it’s very likely that in 2020, down ballot voting in Kentucky will remain ruby red and stymie Beshear’s education proposals. Additionally, Kentucky’s legislature will be able to override any Beshear vetoes with a simple majority, as they did several times under Bevin.

We can expect Governor-elect Beshear to make splashy personnel moves, but they may have only limited impact on students. While Beshear can appoint four members to the State Board of Education in 2020, he’s vowed to use a precedent set by Governor Bevin to replace the entire board on day one of his administration, with the hopes that they fire the current Commissioner of Education on day two. This action is sure to provoke a legal challenge by the man replacing him as Attorney General, Daniel Cameron. 

Even if Beshear is able to execute this plan, it would have the effect of replacing the head of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) for the third time in two years. New leadership may shift the agency’s priorities, but it will take years for those shifts to be felt at the school and student level. 

Efforts to improve student outcomes in Kentucky should have a sense of urgency. Recent results from the “Nation’s Report Card” show that since 2009, performance in reading and math has either stagnated or dropped. More alarmingly, Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, saw the largest decline in 4th-grade reading performance among 27 of the nation’s largest urban districts. 

As Kentucky moves into the post-Bevin era, meaningful improvement in student outcomes can come through reaching across the aisle. While neither side may be able to agree on pension reform or expanding school choice, both controversial topics during Bevin’s tenure, there is still plenty of room to improve what’s happening in classrooms across the Commonwealth. Leaders in the Bluegrass State can look to Louisiana or Tennessee’s non-partisan efforts to bring high-quality, knowledge-building curricula to schools. Or they can follow Mississippi’s lead and focus on rigorous literacy instruction

Children across Kentucky are waiting for change and need Kentucky’s legislators to move past recent acrimony in education policy. Let’s hope that Governor-elect Beshear and his Republican counterparts in the legislature live up to our state motto: united we stand, divided we fall.