The Honorable Bipartisan Legacy of Stephen Pruitt

I don’t know if Stephen Pruitt is a Democrat or Republican. I just know he was Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education.

And I was around him quite a bit, even though I really didn’t have a position that would call for that. What I noticed was his passion for education and his enthusiasm for his job.

Dr. Pruitt agreed to resign from his position on April 11 in a closed session of the Kentucky Board of Education, the day after Gov. Bevin secured the final few appointments to that board which hires the commissioner.

He came to Kentucky right at the time of the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which governs the federal involvement in education. It required a significant amount of work to write Kentucky’s plan to comply with that law and get it approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Part of that was developing a new testing system for Kentucky’s public schools. That’s a huge task and he embraced it with vigor. He toured the state getting input from anyone and everyone on what they thought should be emphasized in the new accountability system. I attended one public forum and was struck by the respect he paid to every person who got up and expressed their hopes and concerns for Kentucky’s students.

That’s how you gain support for public education – or any issue for that matter: you listen to people.

He held 11 of those sessions, and was just beginning a similar statewide tour of forums to gather public input about possible changes to high school graduation requirements. His first –and last – was at Atherton High School in Louisville.

At that first meeting a year ago, I learned of his focus on addressing the achievement gap. He said, “If you have an achievement gap, there’s no way you can be excellent.”

From then on, that became his mantra. The final accountability system, approved by the state board of education, calls for cutting the achievement gap in half. That will require a lot of work, and I know he had a plan to get that done.

While he was our education leader, I learned (should have already known) that Kentucky’s education commissioner serves as the superintendent of the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville and the School for the Deaf in Danville. I found that out because he made sure we all knew, and he made it a priority for the first time in years. Just recently, ground was broken on a new elementary school on the Danville campus.

Dr. Pruitt didn’t lose his enthusiasm or his regular guy demeanor and basic respect for others. On a particularly snowy and busy day in Frankfort during the final days of the legislative session, the top education leader in the Commonwealth got in his car and drove across town, without an entourage and without fanfare, to attend an open house honoring Kentucky PTA’s 100th Anniversary.

In our hyper-partisan environment, where too often the ideas of one party are never even entertained by the other, he was solidly planted on the side of kids. Many say they are for kids, but are not willing to really listen or collaborate with those whose political philosophy is different from theirs.

An example of bipartisanship that worked came a year ago when the legislature passed Senate Bill 1 in 2017’s Regular Session, legislation that set parameters for the new accountability system. Dr. Pruitt was right in the middle of that.

After its passage, he commented on the bipartisan effort: “It’s an impressive bill for many reasons. Kudos to Senator Wilson (then education committee chair) in working with all the different stakeholders and working with us (KDE), too.”

I believe the best solutions are found when all perspectives are considered. That’s not happening in Washington, D.C., and I believe most people can see it isn’t working very well in Frankfort either. We don’t listen to each other, and we suffer.

I don’t know if Stephen Pruitt is a Democrat or Republican. And, I don’t want to know. I just want to know he finds a place that will let him hit the ground running and apply what he learned here, there.

As for how we get things done together here in Kentucky, that question is yet to be answered.


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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