Eastern Kentucky is not Narnia

Published:

The Courier-Journal, Louisville

When people in other parts of the country think about Kentucky, two images pop into their heads.

Theres the Bluegrass, the rolling horse farms that attract aristocrats and royalty from all over the world. But a second image isnt so pretty: the poverty of Eastern Kentucky.

And the truth is, the future doesnt look all that promising: The horse farms are disappearing; the poverty is holding strong. Those scenarios will have to be reversed if Kentucky is to have a secure future.

Last week, Courier-Journal reporter Alan Maimon wrote about Kentuckys poorest counties and their futile attempts at attracting jobs. He chronicled how Owsley, Wolfe and McCreary counties had all invested coal severance tax money in industrial parks, which stand empty. Previous expenditures have ranged from police cars to swimming pools.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher had a better idea last year when he proposed earmarking some of the severance money for educational needs in coal counties.

In his State of the Commonwealth address, the Governor proposed a three-year pilot program where we will invest a portion of the severance money in the 24 lowest performing school districts in coal counties, recognizing that education is an essential element for economic development.

But lawmakers balked. In the rationalizing words of Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, Education is the states responsibility. If were behind, the money should come out of the General Fund.

Sen. Jones says the coal counties need such basic infrastructure as roads, sewers and water, and, of course, hes right. But even more, they need to reverse the regions historic devaluation of education. A well-educated work force is crucial to industry, and Eastern Kentucky doesnt have one. Its also crucial to giving young people, and the families who will depend on them, more options if that industry never comes.

Certainly, by now, everyone in Kentucky should know that Eastern Kentucky is not Narnia. No lion is going to sweep in to save it from the difficulties and difficult choices it faces.

That means putting education first and foremost. It means recognizing, as the Governor did, that severance tax money should be used for targeted interventions, early childhood health and readiness assessments, technology and school construction.

After all, despite years of investments in infrastrucure, the news has not been good. Owsley County has the second-highest rate of poverty in the nation. Wolfe Countys unemployment rate is 8.4 percent. The largest employers in poor counties are generally the public schools and health care facilities. Thats not the basis for a strong economy, and neither are more industrial parks or the proliferating golf courses.

If Kentucky is to do better economically, it must start by doing better educationally.

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