FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Delivering on a campaign promise to teachers who helped elect him, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear used his first day in office Tuesday to overhaul the state school board.
In his inaugural address outside the state Capitol, the new Democratic governor proclaimed his support for public education and expanding health care coverage. He also pledged to protect public employees' pensions, emphasizing the “kitchen table" issues that helped him oust Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
But the crowd that braved the bitter cold gave him a rousing ovation when Beshear announced that he had wielded his executive authority on day one to disband and then recreate the Kentucky Board of Education. Beshear, who had expressed concerns about the previous board's affinity for charter schools, said he appointed new members committed to public education.
“These members were not chosen based on any partisan affiliation, but based on their commitment to make our schools better, to put our children first," Beshear said.
Beshear's handpicked replacements could remove Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis. The new governor's forceful action will be popular with many educators who believe the education board and commissioner have advocated for charter schools at the risk of hurting traditional public schools.
But members of the board that Beshear disbanded vowed to challenge the new governor's authority to remove them before their terms expire.
Kentucky's Supreme Court earlier this year upheld Bevin's actions to reorganize various state education boards. It was one of many legal battles he had with Beshear, who as attorney general claimed the Republican governor had exceeded his authority.
During the campaign, Beshear tapped into teacher activism to overcome the state's Republican leanings and win the governorship. He follows in the footsteps of his father, Steve Beshear, whose two terms as governor preceded Bevin's single four-year term. They are the first father-son duo to serve as governors in Kentucky history.
Kentucky was at the forefront of nationwide teacher protests. Teachers swarmed to the Kentucky Capitol in the past two years to protest pension and education policies supported by Bevin.
Bevin criticized them for causing some schools to close as they rallied. He never fully recovered from the feud.
Beshear, 42, sent a different message, declaring that teachers “represent the best of us.”
“They are the ones on the front lines fighting to give our children the opportunity to succeed," Beshear said. “They are the ones Muhammad Ali — a great Kentuckian — referred to when he said, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.'"
The new governor said his proposed state budget will include the $2,000 pay raise for teachers that he campaigned on. The pay raise is needed to help Kentucky overcome its shortage of teachers, he said.
Jacqueline Coleman was sworn in as the state's lieutenant governor. Her background as a teacher and assistant principal was a key asset for a ticket that stressed its support for public education.
“I became a teacher because I believe, at my core, that education is one of the greatest gifts that we can give," Coleman said in her speech. “That every child, regardless of their ZIP code, deserves access to a world-class education."
Beshear took his oath as governor in a post-midnight swearing-in, which is customary in Kentucky as a sign of continuity. The official transfer of power preceded a full day of inaugural events Tuesday, including a worship service, a parade and the public swearing-in ceremony.
Teachers were given high-profile roles throughout.
Beshear's inauguration ushers in an era of divided government. Republicans hold overwhelming legislative majorities. But in his inaugural speech, Beshear urged state leaders to put “the common good" ahead of political ambitions.
“We succeed when we focus, right here in Kentucky, on making life better for our people instead of allowing national divisions to distract us from the work at hand," he said.
Devan French, a second-grade teacher, said she was so disheartened by Bevin's criticism of teachers that she nearly left the profession.
But on Tuesday, she said she's glad she stuck with it, and feels energized by a new governor she sees as an ally.
“I'm rejuvenated," she said in an interview during an inaugural breakfast reception. “I feel very, very encouraged, very motivated. I'm really excited to see where Mr. Beshear takes us."
In his inaugural address, Beshear spoke of the opportunity to improve health care, retirement and wages for Kentuckians.
Beshear vowed to do “everything in my power" to ensure that Kentuckians with pre-existing medical conditions don't lose health coverage. He promised to fight for lower prescription drug costs.
Previewing another executive action coming later this week, Beshear said he will restore voting rights for more than 100,000 non-violent felons who have completed their sentences.