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By DAVID A. JONES
This year marks an important milestone in Kentucky’s struggle to create world-class schools – one that reminds me of the critical role that engaged citizens must play if our state is to move forward.
Twenty-five years ago, a group of concerned business leaders, parents and advocates came together to form the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Their purpose was to wage a war for the improvement of an educational system that had languished for years in the nation’s cellar.
First, here’s a snapshot of the reality of the early 1980s. Kentucky’s failing education system was ensuring a future of poverty, unemployment and low achievement for many children. Frustrated parents battled political power structures that ran the schools in many communities. State leaders were unwilling or unable to make any improvements, particularly those that cost more tax dollars. Compared to the nation, we were 46th in per pupil spending; we were equally behind in most other measures of educational accomplishment.
Just at the same time, however, the nation was becoming more aware of the relationship between education and a strong economic future. Kentucky’s Council on Higher Education created a commission to make recommendations for the future of higher education in the state. The commission’s report was widely praised by business leaders, educators and the media, but also widely ignored by elected leaders.
This prompted the members of the group, in 1983, to reorganize themselves as an independent, nonpartisan citizens committee that assumed the name of its first chairman, attorney Edward F. Prichard. The group decided to focus on improving elementary and secondary education for all Kentuckians, and to encourage other concerned citizens to voice their hopes for first-rate public education.
The nonpartisan, independent nature of the committee remains unchanged today. Fortunately, however, other aspects of Kentucky education have changed – and largely for the better.
The landmark state Supreme Court ruling in 1989 and the subsequent passage in 1990 of the Kentucky Education Reform Act are considered among the most significant events in the history of our state and its schools. But there have been many opportunities for KERA’s changes to run into a ditch. It has been the tenacious, focused efforts of committed Kentuckians – particularly the hundreds who have volunteered their time with the Prichard Committee – that have kept school improvement on course.
That course has moved Kentucky up from the cellar and is pointing us toward the higher echelons of the nation. In just one generation, the state has moved from a 43rd place ranking among the 50 states to 34th on an index of indicators developed by the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center. The index shows that national test scores, dropout rates and the number of high school and college graduates show improvement across the board.
In addition, state tests of student achievement are up for every group of students in every subject. College enrollment has increased dramatically, and thousands more 3- and 4-year-old children have access to preschool.
Kentucky is, at long last and after much hard work, moving steadily in the right direction.
Yes, much remains to be done. The work will continue to demand the time and attention of dedicated Kentuckians who refuse to accept the status quo of mediocrity and worse – an apt description of the members of the Prichard Committee.
I hope all Kentuckians will join me in commending and congratulating the committee on its 25th anniversary and in supporting its continuing campaign to ensure another 25 years of progress for Kentucky’s schools.
David A. Jones is past chairman of the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform and co-founder and chairman emeritus of Humana Inc.