By Lisa Y. Gross
In 1845, Kentucky Governor William Owsley, joined by the state auditor and state treasurer, burned a selection of bond documents. The interest on these bonds was to be invested and used to support public education in the state, but the commonwealth’s leaders had been “borrowing” that money for years. So, they figured that if the bonds didn’t exist, they would no longer be obligated to repay what they’d taken.
This fiery historical moment is one of many described by William E. Ellis in his new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. Ellis is foundation professor emeritus of history at Eastern Kentucky University, and his latest work is a wide-ranging analysis of Kentucky’s public education system – elementary, secondary and postsecondary. This review centers primarily on the chapters that deal with elementary and secondary education.
Ellis’ description of the bond-burning episode, which was rationalized at the time as necessary and right, is one of many head-shaking moments in the book. Ellis doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Kentucky’s early efforts to educate its residents, as evidenced by the title of the first chapter, “Tragedies, Blunders and Promises.”
But while the tone of the narrative is sometimes that of a mildly outraged observer, the book is not an indictment of the state’s public education system. Rather, it is a fascinating compendium of politics, events, people, outside forces and necessity that have shaped Kentucky’s teaching and learning from Revolutionary War times to the present day.
A History of Education in Kentucky covers four major eras: 1775 to the beginning of the Civil War; the Civil War to 1900; 1900 to 1941; and World War II to the mid-1980s. An epilogue includes Senate Bill 1, the Governor’s Transforming Education in Kentucky Task Force and other recent events. Each section is divided into two chapters: one focused on elementary and secondary education, the other on postsecondary education.
In the preface, Ellis notes that the “subtitle for this book could well be ‘The Struggle for Equity and Equality.’” That’s an apt description. From Kentucky’s early settlement to the present day, its educators, parents and leaders have wanted improvements in education and made efforts to boost achievement, funding and infrastructure. The results have been mixed, and Ellis charts the ups and downs with a writing style that combines historical fact and little-known anecdotes, such as:
- Ellis describes the “blab school” of the late 1700s as “a cacophony of voices repeating a lesson.” In these schools, which served students of all ages who could not afford to attend academies, lessons were repeated aloud in singsong fashion until they sunk in.
- The Civil War’s impact on public education in Kentucky (as in other states) was immense. The teaching force was decreased as men enlisted to fight. Schools, churches and other communal gathering places were closed as armies advanced. Local financial support dried up, and state funding dropped so much that some schools only operated for three months each year.
- In the late 1800s and early 1900s, anyone aspiring to become a teacher had to take a two-day examination that required a 90 percent average to pass. Test-takers were asked a variety of questions on core subjects such as mathematics and geography, but also were expected to provide remedies for stammering.
- In the mid-1950s, desegregation efforts resulted in violence in some parts of the state, but was accomplished quietly in others. Ellis describes the dichotomy of the times vividly, noting that “… Lafayette High School in Fayette County peacefully integrated, although there was a cross burned on school grounds.”
Ellis also writes of many bright spots in Kentucky’s education history. Rural schools often became the centers of their communities, where residents would gather for social occasions and meetings. Normal schools, which were designed specifically to train teachers, spread across the state after the Civil War and eventually received dedicated state funding. In the early 20th century, the Louisville public school system was nationally recognized for offering free kindergarten. In the 1950s and 1960s, teacher salaries increased, as did the determination to educate all children, no matter their economic status, race or disability. Through the efforts of the Council for Better Education in the 1980s, financial equity among school districts became a primary consideration and was codified with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.
The overriding theme of this book could be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The basic concerns about education that Kentuckians held in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s are the same today – quality, resources, achievement levels, equity and facilities. People still want improvement, and there’s a continuing belief that Kentucky eventually will get better at educating its citizenry.
If there’s a lesson in A History of Education in Kentucky, it’s that education and economics are tightly connected. When our state has the resources, its leaders don’t hesitate to invest in teachers, students and infrastructure. When our residents have access to and support for education, they strengthen the economy. As the latest chronicler of Kentucky’s teaching and learning, Ellis seems to want nothing more than for us to grasp that lesson.
Lisa Y. Gross is director of the Division of Communications at the Kentucky Department of Education.