William E. Ellis: Equity in education still Kentucky's challenge

January 13, 2014 

  • At issue: Herald-Leader series of articles focused on Eastern Kentucky, "Fifty Years of Night"

Congratulations to the Herald-Leader for its long-running "50 Years of Night" series about the seemingly intractable problems of Eastern Kentucky. The research was extensive, the writing crisp and the conclusions inescapable.

Historically, education has been the way out of poverty, for rising to the middle class and toward a fulfilling career. The same issues are always before us. One thing I learned in writing A History of Education in Kentucky is that the problems have always been about equity and equality.

Simply stated, since the pioneer days in Kentucky, if you came from a middle-class family, were white and lived in or near an urban area, you had a much better chance for an adequate, if not excellent, public or private school education.

Notwithstanding the Minimum Foundation Program, the Kentucky Education Reform Act and Senate Bill 1, public school funding in Kentucky has devolved again to place the poorer counties in the "problem crescent" at a distinct disadvantage. It is as if we have not learned anything in 200-plus years of history in Kentucky.

Money is not the only measure of improving education, but it is and always will be one of the prime features of this process.

Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, finally became so despondent over the inequities, nepotism and teaching incompetencies that he despaired of ever changing the education climate in Eastern Kentucky. He, like many others, essentially gave up.

The inequalities of race and gender have changed over the years. African-Americans, who are also among the poorest Kentuckians, still suffer. Females, on the other hand, generally have surpassed males to gain the most from educational opportunities. They graduate at higher rates from high schools, colleges, universities and graduate schools than their male counterparts. In effect, we are losing an entire generation of young men — black and white, mostly from poorer families — to their not having even a minimum of educational attainment in a vastly changed society from that of their fathers and grandfathers.

I spoke recently to high-school students who plan to become teachers. When I asked those who had been inspired to become a teacher by one of their recent instructors to raise their hands, too many did not.

Improved teacher education and retention of the best teachers should be the highest priorities of Kentucky's colleges of education and the public schools.

There have always been heroes and heroines who wanted to improve education for all the citizens. Recent Herald-Leader pieces highlighted the efforts of some of these leaders today. There have always been teachers and administrators in Eastern Kentucky who have worked diligently to improve the fate of their students. We need to find more ways to increase their numbers. We have lost Tom Clark, Bert Combs and Bob Sexton. Are their counterparts today equal to the task?

Gov. Steve Beshear and the 2014 General Assembly have an opportunity to get us back on track. The tax structure of Kentucky needs to be changed, pure and simple.

Will groups like the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; banking; businesses, including equine, agriculture and coal, step up and put aside their special agendas, pressuring state government to do the right thing? I, like many other Kentuckians, believe they can do it with a groundswell of popular will to make great changes.

So many questions remain. Will the recent federal Race to the Top grant help prepare Kentucky's most at risk pre-school children for their futures as leaders of the state?

Otherwise, will it be like that great philosopher Yogi Berra once said: "It feels like déjà vu all over again," as we descend deeper into "the Night," not only in Eastern Kentucky but in all the regions of the state, even the vaunted Golden Triangle?

William E. Ellis is a professor emeritus in history at Eastern Kentucky University.

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