FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Hal Heiner, a longtime critic of Jefferson County Public Schools and charter schools advocate, was named chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education on Thursday.

The board will decide the district’s fate as the Jefferson County Board of Education challenges interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’s recommendation to place JCPS in state management unless a settlement is reached before the 12-day hearing begins Sept. 10.

Heiner’s ascent to the state education board’s chairmanship was made possible by the board’s decision in June to waive a one-year service requirement for its officers.

Heiner, who finished third in the 2015 Republican gubernatorial primary, resigned his post as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet after his appointment to the Kentucky Board of Education April 16, along with five other new appointees. A day later, the 11-member board negotiated the resignation of former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt behind closed doors.

The board named Lewis, who worked under Heiner at the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, as interim commissioner at that meeting.

After his election, Heiner said he looked forward to working with the board as chairman. Board member Gary Houchens, who voted against amending the board's leadership policy, abstained but said he supported Heiner as board chair.

“Together we have a background of complementary, not the same, but complementary experiences that all need to be voiced at this table, so my goal as chair is not for us just to reach decisions, but rather a consensus of those voices, a consensus on a path forward,” he said.

Heiner said this year marks his 22nd as a member of an education board and that the work is personal to him, noting that he expects the birth of his 12th grandchild in the next month.

“I share this with you so you will know my personal interest in the future of Kentucky has a depth that knows no bounds,” Heiner said. “And I’m quite frankly hoping to be here to see how all of that works out for them.”

He told reporters during a break in Thursday's meeting that his main goal as chairman of the state education board is to ensure that Kentucky's students "are prepared for life."

Asked about his past criticisms of Kentucky's public school system, Heiner said he would like to see academic achievement improved throughout the state and addressing educational equity.

But for Heiner, that doesn't mean simply giving every kid the same educational opportunities, but rather tailoring education around the needs of students.

"I believe and from what I've seen is that an individualized education, a redefinition of equity that every student gets what they need is the approach that we should take," he said.

Heiner said politics played no role in his election as board chairman, something former Vice Chairman Rich Gimmel stressed in comments to the board.

"I haven't heard the first mention of anything political or politics or some outside force," he said. "... This is an independent board, and I think you heard it this morning, a passion in the members about focusing on the needs of every child, put the needs of that child at the top."

Heiner pushed the legislature to pass a charter school law, which happened in 2017, for years, and he’s formed a number of groups to promote that agenda, including some involving Lewis. They’re listed as the first officers of the Kentucky Charter School Association and Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education, according to secretary of state records.

Both were founded in 2011, but the only one that remains active is the Kentucky Charter School Association, which was renamed the Kentucky Public Charter School Association in 2014, secretary of state records show.

Heiner has also been a vocal critic of JCPS, lamenting poor academic performance during the state education board’s April 11 meeting.

In that meeting, he pushed the education board to do more to boost student performance in JCPS, saying about a third of third-grade students in the district scored novice in reading in 2016-17 K-PREP exams.

“We altogether need to find a way to improve those scores, some of the worst in the state,” he said at the time.

Heiner declined to comment on settlement discussions between JCPS and the Kentucky Department of Education, and he said his focus as chairman won't rest solely on Kentucky's largest school system.

"Probably if you live in Jefferson County you think really the whole board just exists for Jefferson County, but there's a lot of movement that needs to take place across the entire state, and that's my focus," Heiner told reporters.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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