Attorney General Andy Beshear talks to reporters after arguing against executive orders reorganizing education boards. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive orders are the “only reason” sickout teachers can be intimidated by state education leaders, Attorney General Andy Beshear said Friday.

Beshear argued against the executive orders, which reorganized multiple education councils in 2017 and 2018, in the Kentucky Supreme Court Friday. The Education Professional Standards Board, which governs teacher licensing and discipline, was abolished and recreated under one of the orders.

In the changes, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis moved from a voting member of the standards board to an ex officio executive secretary role. Beshear argues Bevin can issue a new order to reorganize the board again if any of the members make a decision he doesn’t agree with.

“The Governor claims to have absolute authority over these education boards,” Beshear told reporters. The orders “give this governor control over each and every part of education and the ability to punish our teachers, and we’re seeing that right now.

“The only reason that the commissioner of education is able to threaten our teachers right now is the executive orders we’re talking about right here.”

Friday’s oral arguments came a day after the Labor Cabinet subpoenaed Jefferson County and other districts for names of teachers who called in sick to force a work stoppage, or sickout. Many consider the move another act of intimidation from Bevin’s administration against teachers for protesting education bills. Lewis and Bevin both said they did not know about the subpoenas.

The case is “critically important” to maintain the independence of education boards and ensure the separation of powers, Beshear said.

Bevin can issue executive orders when lawmakers are not in session, typically meant as a temporary fix. Legislators vote to codify any orders in the next session, either approving or rejecting them. If they reject them, any changes made expire in 90 days.

Beshear argued that Bevin is misusing the law by filing serial executive orders. When lawmakers didn’t approve his 2017 order, Bevin filed a similar one within the 90-day limit. Such a pattern overrides lawmakers’ authority and can allow Bevin to control the government the majority of the year, Beshear said.

Bevin’s general counsel Steve Pitt said the governor is legally allowed to use executive authority to reorganize boards and councils unless the law explicitly prohibits it. The education boards in question are not specifically protected from reorganization, he said.

Pitt noted Beshear had used executive orders to reorganize his office before, something that “completely undermines” his case. Beshear said there is a difference between reorganizing departments the AG oversees and the cabinets the governor controls.

“What we’re talking about here are independent boards created under statute to be independent,” Beshear said.

EPSB is one such board. Initially an independent agency and board, a 2018 order abolished the agency and moved its work to the state department of education. It also moved the board under Lewis’ purview, where he acts in a nonvoting role.

“Wayne Lewis, as the commissioner of education, shouldn’t have any authority to discipline teachers,” Beshear said in a March interview. “The only way he’s in a position to do that is because the governor rewrote the law to make Wayne Lewis the head of the EPSB.”

In response, Lewis said people are making the changes at EPSB “out to be something it’s not.” It is “incredibly insulting” to suggest he would tell the board how to vote in misconduct decisions, he added.

Beshear’s comment came hours before Lewis asked districts to close “loopholes” allowing teachers to shut down districts through mass sick day use. His policy suggestions did not include referring teachers to EPSB. He said he would consider recommending the Labor Cabinet issue citations if sickouts continued. They didn’t.