Saturday, July 06, 2002

Wilkinson kept outsider status, even in office

But played role in school reform

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Wallace Wilkinson came into Kentucky politics as an outsider and stayed that way through his term and after, trying to bend to his will a system that often defied him.

        The former governor, who died Friday after battling cancer, came into office with “about the same perspective as most people who've been totally running their own show and own business. He was just pretty much used to calling all the shots,” said former Senate President John “Eck” Rose. “That works in business. It doesn't always work in government.”

        Mr. Rose and other leaders of the General Assembly soon found themselves butting heads with a governor who could turn on the charm or heap contempt.

        Mr. Wilkinson seemed to relish confrontation. In a book he wrote after leaving office, Mr. Wilkinson said he deliberately fought with the General Assembly because it had been gaining power at the expense of the executive branch.

        “I came into office understanding that I would have to put up a fight for some of the things I wanted,” Mr. Wilkinson wrote. “All this talk about "working with the General Assembly' actually was nonsense. ... From a practical standpoint, I really had no other option than to enter into open political warfare with the legislature.”

        The conflict robbed Mr. Wilkinson of some credit for what is arguably the greatest change in Kentucky government in the last half-century — the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

        Richard “Smitty” Taylor, who was Mr. Wilkinson's chief of staff for much of the administration and is now a prominent lobbyist in Frankfort, said Mr. Wilkinson has yet to be given proper credit for his role in education reform.

        As a candidate in 1987, Mr. Wilkinson issued a minutely detailed white paper on education that called for a redesign of public schools and a rethinking of how they should operate.

        He proposed giving special help to schools in high-poverty districts, rewarding schools that did well and holding all schools accountable for their performances — all of which was eventually incorporated in KERA.

        “I don't think Wallace ever got the credit he deserved for education reform,” Mr. Taylor said. “If you go back and look at his plan for education, it is a mirror for KERA.”

        But Mr. Rose said the legislature was mostly responsible for the reform law.

        Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Rose said, “has to be given at least some credit for working with the legislature when it became apparent we were going to do something.”

        Gov. Paul Patton, who called Mr. Wilkinson “my friend,” paid tribute to his administration.

        “His courage and leadership, when faced with the inadequacies of funding for Kentucky schools, will be his legacy and has forever changed the future of Kentucky,” Mr. Patton said.

        Associated Press Writer Charles Wolfe contributed to this story.

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- Wilkinson kept outsider status, even in office