Appalachia Today: Part 8 – The Failure of Education

Photo: Boys of miners in the first grade in 1946. Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company, Belva Mine, abandoned after explosion in Dec. 1945, Four Mile, Bell County, Kentucky. (Source: Russell Lee)

Following the Civil War, Appalachia was seen as a storehouse of raw materials to be used to power the upcoming industrial revolution in the United States. Railroads penetrated into the inaccessible mountains in the 1870s and provided the means of transportation of the raw materials to the industrial center of the United States–first timber, then coal and finally other resources such as oil and gas. Formerly self-sufficient farmers accepted work and moved into the timber and coal camps in order to survive. As a rule, these former farmers had little in the way of education and indeed education was not valued highly and was even seen by some as repressive. As a result, many outside observers drew harsh conclusions and developed stereotypes about the people of Appalachia, characterizing them as lazy, ignorant, unchurched, clannish, immoral, and incapable of self-government.[1]

Many original settlers in Appalachia in turn had little time for schooling, with education considered a luxury for the well-to-do. The result was that, for decades for the majority, literacy was a dream. Even today, almost 30 percent of Appalachian adults are considered functionally illiterate.[2]

Education was seen by others as another method to control and exploit the region. From the beginning, education in Appalachia largely reflected what outsiders thought it should be and the education that was offered in most cases did not reflect any understanding or respect for the native culture. The best students tended to leave the region or, at best, migrate to urban areas in the region, causing a regional “brain-drain”, or a net export of educated persons. Education has for many years represented a “ticket out” and not an asset for the Appalachian community to build upon.

Culturally speaking, many Appalachians have defined the meaning of life from social relationships within small groups, as opposed to object-oriented people who obtain meaning from external objects and goals, which characterizes much of mainstream America. In the “Kentucky Way”, for example, families and churches were seen as the primary moral institutions, not schools.

Given this, many Appalachians did not want their children educated, fearing that education was some threat that could destroy their family structure with the children excelling beyond their parents in intellectual prowess.

Playing Basketball

A basketball game on unpaved Church Avenue, Rand, West Virginia, near an abandoned automobile. (Source: Harry Schaefer)

In the 20th century, as the infrastructure of roads, water and sewage systems, schools etc. was built to support the coal mines, some attention turned to the education and training of the people in order to better integrate Appalachia and its people into the rest of the country. It did not go well.

Only after World War II did education beyond the eighth grade become common in the region, and the education that was offered was not often relevant to the life experiences and goals of many Appalachians.[3]

As a result of all these factors, it is not surprising that the Appalachian region has dramatically underperformed in terms of educational attainment to the nationwide norm.

Appalachian Kentucky has the largest proportion of people without a high school diploma (24.5) followed by Appalachian Virginia (19.3). Appalachian Kentucky also has the lowest percentage of high school graduate or more (75.5) followed by Appalachian Virginia (80.7). As to population with only high school degree, West Virginia tops with 59.3%, followed by Appalachian Pennsylvania (56.7). Appalachian Kentucky has the lowest rate in terms of people with bachelor’s degree or more (13.6) followed by Appalachian Virginia (18.5).[4]


Children during recess at the Chattaroy, West Virginia school. In the background is a former company store, now privately owned. The town has no industry and most people are supported by welfare, pensions, social security and black lung benefits. A few people drive into Williamson nearby to work. It is a nice small town the children often walk home from school for lunch and even to use the bathroom while out for recess. (Source: Jack Corn)

In 71 Appalachian counties, less than three-fourths of adults had completed high school, and nearly half of these counties were in Kentucky alone; just 76 percent of adults in the state’s Appalachian counties had a high school diploma or more in 2010-2014. Less than one in five residents ages 25 and over were graduates of a four-year college or university in 330 Appalachian counties. And in 43 counties-nearly all of which were either outside metropolitan ears or in Central Appalachia-the share was less than one in ten.  Appalachia is 7% lower than the national average in terms of population with a bachelor’s degree or more. This is a striking indicator of the lower educational level of the Appalachian workforce. Just 14 percent of working-age adults in Central Appalachia had a bachelor’s degree, as did only 16 percent of residents of rural Appalachian counties that were not adjacent to metro areas.

In the United States, one in five students attends a rural school, and more than half of all school districts and one-third of all public schools are in rural areas. However, rural high schools typically receive less funding than high schools in suburban or urban area.[5]

I Want to Be a Miner

Photo: David Shanklin, 19, Lives in a coal company town near Sunbright, West Virginia, and graduated from Logan County High School. His girlfriend, Janet Edwards, 17, still attends High School in Logan. David’s father was killed in the mines in 1954 by a roof fall and he wants to be a miner, but his mother doesn’t want him to. The youth has a brother working in the mines. notice the out houses in front of the homes. (Source: Jack Corn)

Appalachian Kentucky has a long history of systemic poverty and inadequately funded education: the two seem forever bound to one another. For many years, the poor and rural mountainous areas received little money or attention from the state to build schools or an education system. The politicians and the wealthy, living in predominantly populated urban counties, held power in the state and largely ignored Appalachian educational needs. Public schools were not even funded by the state of Kentucky until 1904, and poverty, subsistence farming, lack of transportation and lack of funding delayed public education in the Kentucky mountains considerably longer than in the rest of the state.[6]

In 2013, the average spending per student in Kentucky public school was $9,316 compared to a national average of $10,700.[7] When taking a closer look at schools in rural and urban areas, the statistics become dramatic. Public schools in Barbourville County, Kentucky received an average of $8,362 per student while the public K-8 school in the wealthy Jefferson County suburb of Louisville got $19,927 per student. With no state aid for textbooks, the Barbourville public school had to take $19,276 from the building repair fund to purchase essential new books even though its tiny cafeteria needed expansion in order that the students don’t have to rush to eat lunch within 20 minutes to make room in the cafeteria for their classmates.

The 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act required the state to equalize funding between poor school districts and wealthy school districts like Louisville. In the early 2000s, the state Department of Education redistributed millions of dollars to the poor districts, and as a result, per-pupil revenue in Barbourville reached as high as 62 percent of Louisville’s in 2004. However, the economic recession in 2008 forced the state to freeze its $2.9 billion-a-year SEEK program, the state’s primary funding source for schools, which then declined 10.6 percent from 2008 to 2016.[8] While the state cut back significantly on funding public schools, it spent nearly $18 million to pay for student busing at private, mostly religious schools in two dozen counties over six years, and state subsidy will grow from $2.9 million to $3.5 million a year.[9] As of 2015, Kentucky is one of the states with the largest public school funding cuts since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.[10]

The lack of funding shows up in academic performance. On the 2011 Kentucky Core Content tests, Barbourville elementary and middle school students fell below statewide averages for reading, math and science while Louisville students came in far higher than average, classified as a “Distinguished” district.[11]

Inside of Schoolhouse

Brushy Mountain (Bell County, Kentucky) school interior as it appears today. (Source: National Park Service)

Schools in Appalachian mountains which are often isolated, underfunded and small are poorly suited to the task of secondary education. Many students of the Leslie County High School in rural Hyden, Kentucky must travel about 30 miles to reach the school.[12] In addition, some of the teachers were scarcely better educated than the students they purported to teach, with many lacking professional training at a normal school or university. To make matters worse, teaching positions are among the jobs that were highly coveted in the region. It was not uncommon for elite families who sit on the school board to reserve teaching positions for friends and family members, regardless of their qualifications.[13] A study in 2013 found that the percentage of white students in the Appalachian region (78 percent) was significantly higher than the rest of the nation (51 percent), and when academic performance is compared by race, white students in Appalachian region performed substantially lower (7 scale score points) compared to white students in the rest of the nation.[14]


* Direct college costs like tuition and books have risen far more than inflation, at a rate of 47% between 1994 and 2004, and one of the items often cited as a barrier to college education by traditional and non-traditional students in Appalachia is its cost. According to the ARC, 2014 per capita income figure for McDowell County, for example, was $27,024 compared to the overall per capita income in the US of $46,049.[15] Only 21% of the college qualified students from families with incomes under $25,000 a year graduate from college.