It’s always dangerous to naysay anything a famous or highly respected person has supported vocally and/or financially or affirmed in other ways, but no one is perfect, and, in any case, no one is above being criticized, whether or not the critic is right. The recent accolades upon his death, as well as many of the same through decades of his service to the citizens of Kentucky, have been richly deserved by historian Dr. Thomas Clark, so nothing here is designed in any way to denigrate the person or accomplishments of this great Kentucky asset.
There’s no argument with the documents, such as histories or other writings having to do with factual material, that have been delivered by Dr. Clark. A reliable researcher and chronicler of events, he has always had impeccable credentials. There can be exceptions taken to some of the conclusions he has made with regard to his studies, however. The three noted here are: (1) his consistent call for a constitutional convention to rewrite the Kentucky Constitution, last rewritten in 1891 as the fourth installment, the previous ones dating 1792, 1799, and 1850; (2) his unmitigated support for the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990; and (3) More recently, his support, both vocal and financial (loan to the Urban-County Council), for Lexington’s acquisition of the water company that serves Lexington, Ky., and surrounding counties, even to the point of condemning it under “eminent domain” laws.
Perhaps the best argument against the rewriting of the State Constitution is simply that the U.S. Constitution has stood ever since it was enacted officially in March 1789. It has been amended 27 times, of course, the first 10 amendments (Bill of Rights) enacted in 1791, and the last 17 since 1795, for an average of just over one addition every twelve years since 1795. It’s probable that this argument of “credibility accruing to longevity” has been accepted by most Kentuckians since the current Constitution has stood for 114 years.
With the rapid improvement in communications over the last century, politics and political efforts by individuals and political parties have come more and more under the scrutiny of the people, who, having seen the artificiality of much of what passes for efforts at both achieving and maintaining the reins of government, have become wary of monumental changes, such as a complete rewrite of the state’s document of governance, particularly as they’ve seen the effectiveness of the amendment process, the latest such example being the absolute definition in November 2004 of what does and does not constitute a marriage.
Given the bitter partisanship that has marked Kentucky politics throughout recent memory, but especially in the last 6-8 years, the notion that fairness and balance could be achieved in a constitutional rewrite is silly in the extreme. In at least three recent legislative sessions, lawmakers could not or would not even pass a budget, leaving the governor to run the state as he saw fit (such action on his part actually unconstitutional). They would never be able to handle anything as complicated as re-doing the Constitution, even if they had no vested interests, an impossibility.
The Education Reform Act of 1990 was probably the worst legislation of the century, the incorporation of the “outcomes-based/self-esteem” approach that was DOA on arrival, as already proved elsewhere. In an August 2003 speech at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Dr. Clark said, “I can think of nothing that had the potential, has the potential, and will have the potential of turning this state around more than the passage of House Bill 940 (the Ed. Reform Act of 1990).” In an article a year ago in The Kentucky Post, Dr. Clark said, “Tragically, there have ever been the blighting incidents of fiscal ‘shortfalls,’ which have thrown governmental operation into retreat. By contrast, there have been great landmark advances, as revealed in the history of public transportation and in the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.”
To their credit, legislators have already dismantled much of this disastrous approach to education, and in the process have indicated the total lack of competence of the legislature in 1990 in matters of pedagogy, a subject they shouldn’t have touched with the proverbial 10-foot pole. Indeed, in 15 years, the state education bureaucracy has not even developed a viable system of accountability – testing, in other words. By the late 90s, elementary teachers/principals had already deserted the K-3 approach, leaving the legislature little choice in eating crow and axing that KERA provision. The eight hugely expensive Regional Service Centers have been dismantled, one gathers, with no detrimental effects.
Also dismantled has been the Rewards System – perhaps the most egregious of all – that was set up to pay bonuses to teachers/administrators for merely doing their jobs. All that this unbelievable outrage ever achieved was widespread cheating on the part of school personnel in order to reap the rewards they saw other teachers receiving. In many of the schools, reward money was never a possibility simply because of the demographics, so teachers in those schools were always slated to be left out in the cold, and they knew it, thus the cheating. The saddest part of the whole mess was that the students knew precisely what was going on.
The average ACT score in the nation in 2003-04 was 20.9. Kentucky’s score was 20.3, and the scores in only ten states were lower than Kentucky’s. This circumstance obtains after 15 years of KERA, the system that was supposed to make Kentucky a bellwether state in education. By comparison, Utah, which spent $4,899 per pupil in 2002 while Kentucky spent $6,523 per pupil, had an ACT score of 21.5, or six percent more than Kentucky’s. In 2003, 72% of Kentucky’s 4th-graders scored above the basic level in national math tests, while the Utah figure was 79%. The reading scores were virtually identical, 65 and 66, respectively. For 8th-graders, the figures for Kentucky and Utah in the math tests, respectively, were 66% and 72% while the reading scores were, again, virtually identical, 78 and 76, respectively. In three of the four areas, Utah outdid Kentucky, but spent 33% less across the board. These figures come from the U.S. Dept. of Education. In Kentucky, it appears that 23% of 10th-graders, according to the results of the 2004 tests, read at the Proficient level – not very good.
Kentucky’s expenditure per pupil was below the national average of $7,731, but that average was artificial in that in the District of Columbia, in which is located the worst school system in the nation, the expenditure per pupil was $13,330, thus pumping up the average. In New York, the per pupil figure was $11,218, but the New York City system, one of the largest in the nation and a huge drain on its state finances, is among the worst in the nation. KERA is patently a failure, and it is expected that the legislature will see the wisdom of rescinding that part which mandates school-based councils and puts the power of standardization, the purse, and the curriculum back where they belong, as responsibilities of the school-boards and the appropriate agencies.
Dr. Clark’s position with respect to the city’s acquisition of the water company was puzzling not least because of the inconsistency of that stand with that which apparently obtained regarding the other utilities such as electricity, gas, and communications. This was particularly puzzling regarding the electricity utility in that the company providing that commodity was/is foreign owned, as was/is the water company, and, without the service of which not a teaspoon of water could be pumped from the Kentucky River, purified, and delivered throughout the area. One would expect an advocate of local ownership of the water-service company to also insist upon local ownership of the suppliers of electricity, gas, and phone/communication service, since these, too, have directly to do with the quality of life and, in some cases, even survival. Yet, Dr. Clark did not give evidence of pushing for these changes.
Nor was his position one that would be expected of an advocate for the main element endemic to having personal property, maintaining productivity, and private enterprise in general. His insistence that education be given priority surely had as one of its reasons the simple fact that educated people can be successful entrepreneurs, own businesses, pay taxes, do skilled work for others, and contribute to the welfare of the state. The city’s purchase of the water company would not be a problem for most people, including Dr. Clark. The condemnation of it, however, is another matter, never mind that a sum of money would be exchanged. The crux of the matter lies in whether or not for any reason a government should cannibalize an operation performing adequately and fairly and even regulated by the state, thereby changing the nature of that facility from one of private enterprise to one of socialism. A historian should look upon this type of governance as oppressive.
In summary, People can have honest differences about these three things. Most of the state’s citizens, disagreeing with Dr. Clark by simply noticing the chaos in both the administrative and legislative processes now and for the last 20 years, probably look askance at a constitutional convention, realizing that exponential mischief could be achieved in such an undertaking. For example, it was a terrible mistake for the legislature to undertake either the administration of or the pedagogy connected with the education system. It simply lacked competence for these things. Prior to that, the lawmakers, at the urging of the then-governor, ran all but one of the suppliers of medical insurance out of the state. It is a given that vested interests and not the welfare of the state would drive the lawmakers’ efforts at changing the Constitution.
While being a uniquely gifted historian, Dr. Clark perhaps didn’t have the background for recognizing the pitfalls many saw in outcomes-based education, with self-esteem perhaps being the linchpin of the whole mess. Using the schools as vehicles for social change is as wrong as using the military for that purpose. It is a matter of record that much of the reform act was pork, the element that greased the skids for its passage, and the best school systems, far from being rewarded, were shortchanged as huge outlays of cash went to systems in counties where taxes were levied and collected haphazardly at best, those very systems that engineered the court decisions leading disastrously to KERA. Strangely, even as he saw the system being dismantled, Dr. Clark continued to support it.
With regard to the water-company condemnation, Dr. Clark joined a sort of elite, generally wealthy group giving as a reason for their efforts the need to cadge the company’s profits for the citizens rather than for the company’s stockholders. This elitism would probably show up in the other two areas mentioned here, as well, driving a mind-set generally accorded to the majority of faculty members of universities throughout the nation, the area of endeavor in which Dr. Clark was engaged. It’s the “Big Brother” approach that is anathema to individualism, and is the opposite of what this nation is about.
And so it goes.