As it now stands, Stephen L. Pruitt is little known by either the elected or appointed leaders or public school superintendents, administrators or teachers in Kentucky. That will soon change.
The Kentucky Board of Education Tuesday officially named the 47-year-old Pruitt Kentucky’s sixth Commissioner of Education, automatically making him the most powerful and highest-paid individual in elementary and high school education in the state.
Among other things, the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 replaced the old elected constitutional office of state superintendent of public schools with a commissioner of education who is appointed by the unelected Kentucky Board of Education. The commissioner can serve for as long as he has the support of a majority of state school board members.
Stephen L. Pruitt
Pruitt succeeds the retiring Terry Holliday, who served for six years before retiring in August. Pruitt will assume his new duties on Oct. 16. Kevin Brown will continue as interim commissioner.
Pruitt’s background is a bit different from the previous five education commissioners because he does not immediately come from a position in public education. Instead, the new education commissioner comes to Kentucky after serving for two years as senior vice president of an independent, non-profit education reform agency, Achieve Inc. However, he previously served as a public school leader when he was associate state superintendent for the Georgia Department of Education.
Pruitt was one of two finalists to succeed Holliday, who retired after six years. When the other finalist, Christopher Koch, withdrew his name, Pruitt became the favorite something by default. However, he had no trouble in winning the unanimous and enthusiastic support of state school board members.
While we know little about the new commissioner and his style of leadership, Stephen Pruitt does have the advantage of succeeding a commissioner who we think has been among the best of the state’s appointed education commissioners. Terry Holliday has been a strong and effective advocate for quality schools in Kentucky who has resisted political pressure to back away from Kentucky’s support of the high national standards for public schools. Holliday recognized that i[n] Kentucky students are to be able to compete with the best schools in the country for the good-paying jobs of tomorrow they must be able to receive an education that is second to none. Sure, that means more is being expected from Kentucky’s public schools and they must rise to the higher standards. Terry Holliday knew that. Unfortunately, not every leader in this state agrees with those high standards.
Pruitt’s contract provides for an annual salary of $240,000 over the next four years, a bit more than the $225,000 Holliday made. But to his credit, Holliday declined some scheduled pay increases during his as commissioner because of stagnant funding for public education.
At Achieve Inc., the new commissioner participated in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards, which Kentucky has adopted. As a result, Pruitt already has worked with Kentucky Department of Education staff on the implementation of the standards in Kentucky. Thus, he is not a complete stranger in Frankfort. In fact, he already has earned the respect of some of those he soon will be supervising.
Pruitt has previously indicated he anticipated no sudden or dramatic changes as he takes over from Holliday, saying he’d take time to get acquainted with staff and Kentucky schools, but he promised to support students and school districts.
We do not know enough about the new commissioner to pass judgment on his appointment. However, because the position is so important to quality education in Kentucky’s public schools, Stephen I. Pruitt begins his new job on Oct. 15 with our full support and we hope he proves worthy of that support.