These Are the 6 Biggest Challenges Facing Kentucky
Distinguished journalist David Hawpe, retired editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville and lifelong Kentuckian, shared his thoughts on the major challenges facing his home state as he led a panel discussion at the recent Summit on Philanthropy held in Lexington. This article first appeared at KY Forward.
Many who have gathered here today have no doubt about what the major challenges facing Kentucky are. But, let me single out six that I believe are especially significant.
1. Failure to Dream Big
The first and most important, in my view, is a failure to dream big and reach high… a failure to imagine Kentucky at the cutting edge of best practices, except in college basketball and the production of bourbon whiskey and horse-racing stock. Julia Roberts, the educator who helped make entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gatton’s dream come true, with the development of what twice has been ranked as America’s best high school – the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University – is instructive.
Ms. Roberts wrote a piece recently that decried Kentucky’s “excellence gap.” Despite overall progress in elementary and secondary education performance, which she acknowledges, what worries her is (1) too few students achieving more than proficiency and (2) lagging achievement among the state’s brightest students.
The Patton Administration did dream big and aim high when it created Bucks for Brains, which matched state money with private donations to create endowed chairs and professorships at the state’s universities. This has been transformative for UK and U of L, particularly in health center faculty and leading edge medical research. Bucks for Brains began to encourage a real culture of giving to public campuses. Tragically, it died for lack of legislative support. It was given a back of the hand again this year in Frankfort by a legislature that, for more than a decade, has been dominated by a primarily rural and non-new-tax electorate.
Even in a narrow but critically important measure that underpins the talent-and-technology economy we ought to be developing in Kentucky – a simple thing like Internet speed – we’re not reaching high enough. Kentucky is one of the states with the lowest average Internet connection speeds in the country. We’re down there with Montana and Alaska, with connection speeds of 7.3 megabytes per second.
The great historian Dr. Tom Clark pointedly reminded us that Kentucky always has been (1) reluctant to embrace education and (2) uncomfortable in the vanguard of change.
2. Underfunded Government
The second challenge is a state government that’s underfunded to meet the needs and sustain the programs that Kentucky’s citizens need. The root cause is a tax system that that’s not geared to a modern economy and an electorate dominated by a no-change bias and a no-new-tax devotion.
Take education. Holding the line in elementary and secondary education funding since 2008 really has meant falling back. And at the higher education level, the story is much worse… more than a 25 percent cut in state funding since 2008, which is $2,649 per student and which has resulted in, for example, a 45 percent tuition skyrocket at UofL. The story is similar on all our public campuses. And the state has no rational strategy for allocating the pitiful higher education funding it does provide. The cuts have hit all areas of state service, but they have been especially frustrating in social services, which has reduced clearly needed help for people who are clearly in need.
3. Our Health
Then there’s our failure to solve the health, lifestyle and related environmental problems that afflict our citizenry. You all know the discouraging statistics that reflect most embarrassingly and poignantly our state’s resistance to change. As most of you are aware, our chronic disease at-risk rates are high (64 percent); a depressing percentage of our citizens smoke (about 30 percent); nearly one-third of Kentuckians are obese, with all the implications that figure carries, and, we typically don’t get enough exercise.
In America’s Health Rankings 2013 we came in at a disturbing 45th among the states. And, as the latest Kentucky Annual Economic Report from the Center for Business and Economic Research at UK warns, “Kentucky poor health status has economic effects and consequences.”
4. Concentrated, Cyclical Poverty
Of course the elephant in the room is a region of concentrated, cyclical poverty, afflicted by multiple health crises, generational out-migration of talent and energy, and socio-political dysfunction that ultimately has frustrated decade after decade of private and pubic efforts to address it. This region of great charm, as well as unique cultural and historical significance, has given the state much, in terms of energy resources and exported human capital, but it remains a seemingly endless drain on the financial and governmental resources of the remainder of Kentucky.
The widely disdained city of Louisville gets back something like half of every dollar it sends to Frankfort in taxes, in part because we have not found a way to lift Eastern Kentucky out of dependency. Louisville is, and ought to be, a net giver to the state treasury; state government is there in part to redistribute resources to places and people in need. But over time, the need could be reduced if ways are found to strengthen the economy in the mountains. Perhaps the collapse of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky will finally force the folks in the region, where I was born and where my people have lived for generations, to accept the need for change.
5. The Louisville Divide
The fifth dilemma is the historic and persistent divide between the state’s largest city and the rest of Kentucky. We Louisvillians are often subjected to invidious comparison with Indianapolis and Nashville, citing the progress in those other cities and our contrasting lack of similar economic success. To the extent that the criticism is accurate, it can be explained in many ways, but one real factor is the truth that the rest of Kentucky doesn’t much like Louisville… certainly doesn’t like Louisville in the way it loves Lexington.
Non-Louisvillians consider the river city a dismal if not downright dangerous place. I had a friend from Breathitt County who, when she was about to visit me, tried to insist that I meet her at the county line on I-64, since driving in Louisville was, in her view, so difficult and dangerous. She had no trouble and no fear in Lexington, which I believe has much worse traffic problems than Louisville.
Jack Richardson IV, former chair of the Jefferson County Republican County, recently wrote a piece in which he called out ag commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Jamie Comer, who is from a farm background in Monroe County. He called Comer out for assuring a political audience that the state’s next chief executive “will not be from Louisville.” Richardson said, “A political strategy that pits the rest of the state against Louisville might have worked in years past. (But) Kentucky is faced with many challenges and needs and deserves more than that now – things are too serious for more politics as usual.” I agree with Jack.
6. No Front-Ranked University
Finally there is the absence in Kentucky of at least one front-rank university. I say this as a lifelong University of Kentucky fan, a UK graduate who is grateful for the fine education I received there, a sometime UK instructor, a UK giver and now member of the university’s Board of Trustees.
UK is a fine institution, and it is making strong progress under President Capilouto, but neither UK nor UofL is as strong, academically, as the state needs its flagship and research universities to be. I don’t subscribe to the validity of the U. S. News & World Report ranking of public universities, but it means something that UK is tied for 63rd this year. The University of Louisville tied for 161st.
This is not to say good things are not happening at UK and UofL. The Lexington campus is being reimagined and revitalized, and this year’s freshman class placed UK among the top ten public universities in the country in numbers of Merit Scholars. U of L has added some academic markers and campus dorm space to its burgeoning and successful athletic program, the manifestations of which lie in spectacular array along I-65 as it passes the campus. But neither school is at a place, academically, that’s anywhere near its accomplishments and facilities athletically. The one exception is health care and medical research, which, especially at UK, has been a heartening and welcome development.
These are the challenges that worry me most. And my job this morning has been to list them, and leave it to others to talk about ways to move past them. I feel as I did when I taught a course called “Appalachia – A Study in Failed Approaches,” first at Harvard and then on Kentucky campuses.
I talked about the consequences of industrialization coming to the region, in the form of logging and mining, and the disruption of the subsistence farming economy that was there before the coming of the big saws and the coal cutters.
I talked about the the failure of the utopian capitalist model, the company town; the inability of the union model to sustain a broad role for itself; the ultimate inadequacy of the missionary approach, even with its settlement schools; the federal government’s inadequate efforts, from CCC and WPA to the federally-financed Chamber of Commerce enthusiasms of the Appalachian Regional Commission and its development districts; the Quixotic anti-establishment gestures of mildly radical groups like the Appalachian Volunteers; the evisceration of the OEO’s government-financed organizing and programming, when local officials finally took over those citizen-based programs. Vestiges remain, like the wonderful Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, and Appalshop in Whitesburg. But in the end, nothing has been a big fix.
My students always ask me, “Well then, what do you suggest is the answer?” I always have to tell them I don’t know.
That’s where I am today. I know a good bit about what Kentucky’s challenges are, but the answers remain mostly undiscovered. Government may be the problem, as President Reagan insisted, but that’s true only if it’s a government elected in a typically apathetic turnout, from among voters who are served by an erratic, unaccountable and speed-obsessed media, in elections controlled by special interests and their money.
I believe solutions can emerge not only from imaginative, aggressive, generous and wise philanthropy but also from an informed and involved electorate.
David Hawpe is a native Kentuckian, graduate of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism, and a nationally distinguished journalist and editor. He grew up in Eastern Kentucky, was editorial page editor for the Courier-Journal, and, in retirement, is a staff advisor to a Louisville legislator. He serves on the board of trustees of the University of Kentucky and formerly served on the board of Morehead State University. Over a 40-year career in journalism, he was recognized with numerous national honors, tuaght at Harvard, the Univerisity of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and Spaulding University. He served as national president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and on the board of Newswatch. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and the UK Hall of Distinguished Alumni. On this watch, the C-J earned four Pulitzer Prizes.