Robert Sexton's lasting legacy

Robert F. Sexton brought Kentuckians something we crave but rarely receive outside the athletic arena: national recognition and acclaim.

Mr. Sexton, who died last week after giving cancer a hard fight, was both a creator and messenger of the dramatic strides Kentucky made to improve education.

In August 1983, he became executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a trailblazing citizens group that took the lead in creating and voicing demand for better schools.

More than anyone, Mr. Sexton and the Prichard Committee set the stage for Kentucky's decade of progress in the 1990s.

During that period, the legislature reformed every level of education, equalized funding between rich and poor school districts, raised standards and dedicated billions of new dollars to education.

This feat was perhaps better appreciated outside than within the state, and Mr. Sexton was in demand around the country to tell the story.

Whether speaking to a seminar at Harvard about the Kentucky Education Reform Act or a legislative committee about a bill, he was a plainspoken and eloquent advocate for his home state and education. (And, amazingly, he never ever succumbed to speaking education jargon.)

Mr. Sexton was unpretentious. He loved fly-fishing and had unerring political instincts. His keen intellect and perspective as an historian may explain why he was able for almost 30 years to work in the midst of Frankfort's political fray while somehow also staying above the fray.

He had every reason to feel satisfied with his life's work, but we know he was not satisfied with Kentucky's progress. He despaired that any new money for public schools in the last decade was eaten up by escalating employee health care costs and that school funding had again fallen behind competitor states.

Mr. Sexton, who remained passionate and engaged always, was especially passionate about the need to improve and elevate teaching.

Kentucky is quantifiably better off because of the changes Mr. Sexton helped bring about. As just one indicator, young Kentuckians now graduate from high school at a rate higher than the national average — a sea change in a state that not too long ago envisioned no future beyond farm fields, factories and mines for most of its young people.

Mr. Sexton inspired us to raise our sights as parents, educators and as a state.

He leaves an impressive legacy. The Prichard Committee, whose board is made up of 100 volunteers, employs about 20 people and receives substantial foundation support to watchdog public education and advocate for improvements.

In a huge act of civic capacity-building, the Prichard Committee under Mr. Sexton has trained 1,700 Kentucky parents to be education advocates in their communities.

Their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of Kentuckians who will be better educated because of Mr. Sexton's dedication, will be proud and lasting legacies indeed.