A Gift Toward Kentucky’s Future
THE ROLL CALL of early supporters of the Prichard Committee who have died since our battle for better education began in the early 1980s reminds us of how much they gave to improve our schools and the challenge we still face in the struggle for our children’s future.
Three former governors in our ranks — Bert Combs, Edward Breathitt, and Louie Nunn — are gone. A third of the original 30 members of the Committee are deceased.
The vibrant leadership of the current committee testifies to the legacy of the pioneers who signed on with the late Edward F. Prichard, Jr., a lawyer from Paris, Kentucky who in 1980 led a citizens’ committee on improving Kentucky’s universities.
When 20,000 citizens participated in town forums across the state in 1984, Ed Prichard was dying in a Lexington hospital, but he had inspired Robert Sexton, his committee’s executive director, to give the rest of his life to Prichard’s cause. This cause had broadened a path to a larger life by creating a strong educational future for Kentucky — “from the womb to the tomb.”
Two reports on educational reform were the groundwork achievements of the Prichard Committee. The town forums, signaling a call to action, were the second achievement. Then came five years of lobbying by Sexton and committee members focusing on two lawsuits — the first ending in an order to equalize school funding, the second ruling that the whole state system was unconstitutional.
Faced with a clean slate, the Legislature passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990 and raised the sales tax to add $1.5 billion for financing. Kentucky became the center of national attention with other states looking to us as a model.
As improvements followed, the committee became a watch dog, outliving governors and lawmakers, defending against critics and advocating for progressive change in education.
Our committee, not affiliated with Kentucky state government, is an independent, non-profit, non- partisan group of volunteers. Its work takes money, lots of it, which has come from major companies and foundations—in and out of Kentucky—and from individuals and families. On the eve of my 90th birthday, writing the last check of a Christmas pledge made after Bob Sexton died in 2010, I invite all who care about the future of our children to join with me in a gift to the committee in Bob’s name and to honor all who stood with him and Ed Prichard in this glorious campaign.
Journalist Al Smith of Lexington, founding host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky, is a former federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, a founder of Leadership Kentucky and a founding member of the Prichard Committee.