Kentucky Voices

Ky. Voices: Carl Perkins' education legacy still lifts up America

His education legacy still lifts up America

March 3, 2013 

As the Herald-Leader commemorates the 50th anniversary of Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill, the series also should celebrate the work of the late Congressman Carl D. Perkins, who advanced the Appalachian Kentucky region serving the 7th District from 1949 to 1984.

His educational legacy is not appreciated nor understood by many, probably because he accomplished so much in other programs in his 35 years in Congress. He was such a pivotal player in passage of the Johnson administration's Great Society programs, and he was so clearly a New Deal liberal. Unfortunately, many people only credit or blame Perkins for the welfare and entitlement programs that originated in the 1960s, ignoring that he changed the face of education in the nation as no one else has in Congress.

Another reason for this lack of understanding of his educational accomplishments is that he emphasized what he did in his district, not nationally.

In an interview just months before his death in 1984, Perkins said he would like to be remembered not for passing numerous education bills and laws strengthening mine safety and black-lung benefits, but for his work on behalf of the people in his 23-county district in Eastern Kentucky.

"You know, I've built a lot of dams and a lot of locks," Perkins said. "And there are a lot of people whose land won't flood next spring because the Congress has acted. Those are the kind of things that really count."

Perkins was able to fly under the national media radar, which was perfectly fine with him, because of his unassuming mountain charm. His country ways, mountain twang and what some writers described as a "rough-hewn" appearance — complete with baggy pants — caused many to underestimate his abilities.

His passion for education came from his father, J.E. "Jim" Perkins, who was the second school superintendent in Knott County (1896-1900). Perkins and his sister, Bevie, a teacher, were taught by their father and school-teacher mother, Dora, that the way to raise people up was through education.

Perkins initially became a teacher in the two-room school on Montgomery Creek, to which he commuted by horseback. His salary was $59.54 a month. His wife, Verna, after working for a time in his congressional office without pay later became a first grade teacher in W.T. Patterson Elementary School in Southeast Washington, a predominately black area. So, in his personal experience he was able to blend the rural and inner-city education needs.

In January 1949, House Speaker Sam Rayburn appointed him to the Education and Labor Committee. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were also on this committee. Perkins and Nixon clashed on the issue of federal aid to education, which Nixon opposed. Perkins said he could never learn to respect Nixon. Kennedy also opposed federal aid but a strong bond formed between Perkins and him.

A savvy legislator from the beginning, Perkins helped Kennedy learn the ropes and often held his proxy vote. That relationship continued throughout Kennedy's presidency.

Perkins did not win the federal aid to education battle in 1949 or 1950. The Senate passed a bill, but the House could not muster the support. But, in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed. Perkins called it his greatest achievement after a 16-year struggle. He is credited for getting its passage by rushing it through Congress holding marathon hearings and wearing down the bill's opponents.

Sen. Claiborn Pell's observations about Perkins' persistence are telling: "On more than one occasion, I saw him keep a conference going until he got his way by simply outlasting his opponents, by exhausting them."

Perkins' efforts were enabled by Russia's launch of Sputnik in 1957 and later by the landslide election of his friend Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which led to the quick passage of the Great Society programs.

Sputnik's invasion of space spawned the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, on which Perkins diligently worked. Prior to that, he was the principal sponsor of the1956 Library Services Act which provided aid to public libraries in rural areas.

He wrote and sponsored the Adult Basic Education Act in 1961 for rural areas. It did not pass then, but he later successfully added it to a piece of anti-poverty legislation in the mid-1960s.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, he sponsored and piloted to a successful vote the Vocational Education Act of 1963. That legislation combined elements of the smaller vocational programs in effect and broadened federal participation into the vast national program it is today. This law was known as the Perkins-Morse bill, also named after Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon who had championed education for years.

Perkins was a prime mover in the nation's child nutrition programs and sponsored the School Lunch Amendments of 1968, 1970, 1975 and 1978. These are examples of congressmen who learned the value of the school breakfast and lunch programs because Perkins took them to his district for hearings. He often said "a hungry child cannot learn."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a strong impact on education. It was passed to foster desegregation of public schools and to ensure equal rights to students regardless of race, color, religion or origin. It is a testament to his courage and vision that Perkins was one of only 11 Southern Democrats who voted for it.

Perkins played a major role in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, often called the war on poverty bill. It utilized education as a method to tackle poverty. Funding included Job Corps for youth, job training and vocational rehabilitation, and adult basic education.

His final main educational achievement was the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, originally authorized in 1984. It provides individuals with academic and technical skills needed to succeed in knowledge-and skills based economy. The federal contribution to career and technical education, almost $1.4 billion annually supports innovation and expands access to quality programs.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service