School & District Management

Education Advocate Robert F. Sexton Dies at 68

By Alyson Klein — September 13, 2010 4 min read
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Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and a champion of Kentucky’s pioneering and nationally influential efforts in K-12 education reform, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 68.

In his role at the helm of the Prichard Committee, based in Lexington, Ky., Mr. Sexton helped shape the Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, which served as an early model of state-based accountability for schools.

Mr. Sexton was also a visible force in national education policy. He served on the board of the Education Trust, an organization in Washington that advocates for poor and minority children, as well as the board of the Education Commission of the States and numerous other organizations. Since 1992, he had served on the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.

The landmark Kentucky education law with which he was closely associated was enacted in 1990 in response to a 1989 decision by the state supreme court declaring that the legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duty to create an “efficient school system. The court ordered the legislature to “re-create and re-establish” the system.

The Prichard Committee, named after its first chairman, Edward Prichard, a Kentucky education advocate, grew out of a panel of citizens, parents, the business community, and other volunteers formed in 1980 to work on higher education issues. Mr. Sexton, who had been a professor of history at Murray State University, in Murray, Ky., and later an administrator at the University of Kentucky, took on leadership of what became known as the Prichard Committee beginning in 1983. He led it during its work in helping state lawmakers develop a new system that put student progress at the heart of K-12 overhaul efforts in the wake of the court decision.

“Prichard was probably the linchpin for the start of the grassroots push that … led to KERA,” said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

Mr. Sexton and the organization also kept a watchful eye over the law’s implementation, helping to push through a number of refinements, including a recent change to the assessments used under the law. The committee—and Mr. Sexton, in particular—also worked to ensure that lawmakers lived up to their promises to increase school funding.

“He was always out there [saying] that we are asking schools to do a tremendous amount to make tremendous changes, and the schools really had to have the resources,” said Mr. Hughes, who previously worked in state agencies that helped implement KERA and who knew Mr. Sexton for decades. “He was a tireless advocate, and some would say, a tireless agitator.”

In fact, the night before his death Aug. 26, Mr. Sexton was on the phone with journalists, Mr. Hughes said, to talk about the next steps for state lawmakers in pushing ahead with a school improvement agenda after Kentucky fell short as a finalist in its quest for up to $175 million in federal Race to the Top money. Mr. Sexton had scheduled those interviews himself, Mr. Hughes said.

“When he had something to say, he didn’t wait for someone else to call him,” Mr. Hughes said.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, said that the Prichard Committee, and Mr. Sexton in particular, served as a testament to the power of state-level activism. The committee showed the education advocacy community that “if you have a strong third-party advocacy, especially from well-regarded citizens, it’s much easier to develop reform ideas and much easier to create momentum,” she said.

She also said Mr. Sexton was very willing to help other, “younger” education advocacy organizations around the country. “He very generously shared with anybody who wanted to learn,” she said.

Continued Influence

The Prichard Committee, in looking for a successor to Mr. Sexton, intends to launch a national search, said Sam Corbett, the chairman of the group’s board. But finding the right person to head the committee will be a major challenge, Mr. Corbett said.

“We feel a lot of pressure. No one is irreplaceable, but Bob comes pretty close,” he said. Mr. Sexton had the rare gift for being able to work on a politically fraught issue without making enemies on either side of the partisan aisle, Mr. Corbett said. “He was able to walk that magic line,” Mr. Corbett said.

A Kentucky native, Mr. Sexton earned his undergraduate degree at Yale University and received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. He served as a visiting scholar at Harvard University and at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Mr. Sexton was the founder of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program, a summer residential program for high-achieving high school students in the state. He served as the chairman of the board that established the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, an education center for youths and families in Lexington.

A memorial service is planned for Oct. 16, at 1:30 p.m., at the Haggin Auditorium, Transylvania University, in Lexington.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as Education Advocate Robert F. Sexton Dies

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