Building a Legacy in Education Finance and Law
by Tom Hanlon / Apr 28, 2021
Kern Alexander’s love for education and quest for equity in school funding has never waned. His expert court testimony has helped win more equitable education in 20 states. And through his research, teaching, and writing—he has written or edited 30+ books—he continues to build on his legacy.
“Mr. Alexander, I would like you to turn to the judge and repeat after me,” the Tennessee attorney general said.
Kern Alexander, an expert witness in a case against the state of Tennessee regarding equitable funding for education, gave the attorney general a wary look. “What do you want me to repeat?” he said.
“I want you to say to the judge, ‘I’m the most boring man in the world.’ Because to study school finance for 35 years, you have to be the most boring man in the world.”
To which Alexander amiably replied, “You and my wife agree, now let’s put this behind us and get on with your cross-examination.”
The truth is, Samuel Kern Alexander, Excellence Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is boring only if you consider consistent success to be boring. Sort of like saying John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach who won 10 NCAA titles in his last 12 seasons, was boring.
Alexander, by the way, had a similar string: His expert testimony helped win not only that case in Tennessee; it helped win cases in 20 of 22 states over a quarter century as he pushed for equity in education funding.
Book and Journal Stand the Test of Time
A former athlete—he was a quarterback for a small college team and was named Honorable Mention All-American—he still looks trim and fit. He spends his mornings writing, his afternoons teaching, and his evenings reading. He teaches courses in public school law and finance, and higher education law and finance. He uses his own books in his courses, and he has plenty to choose from. Over the years, he has authored, coauthored, or edited 30 books, including the seminal American Public School Law.
The book is in its ninth edition, the last six of which have been coauthored with Alexander’s brother, M. David Alexander. This 1,386-page tome was first published in 1969—back when Neil Armstrong was leaving footprints on the moon and Woodstock was attracting 350,000 to its music festival—and has stood the test of time. American Public School Law came out with its latest edition in 2019, shows no signs of slowing down, and is known as the gold-medal standard for teaching education law.
“It’s a good topic, a current topic, and it keeps rolling along with new information,” says Alexander. “The law has changed dramatically in those many years. This book has fit in rather well with my interest in education finance and the inequity and inadequacy suits over the years. Superintendents and principals and teachers need to know what their legal responsibilities are. You can’t stumble around and lead a school district and not know the law.”
And then there is the Journal of Education Finance, which he co-created in 1974 with Dr. R.L. Johns, director of the National Educational Finance Project (which Alexander also directed). Alexander is still editor of that 47-year-old journal, which is widely indexed and has maintained its status over the decades as one of the leading journals in the field of funding public education.
Yes, Mr. Attorney General: If you consider five-plus decades of unabated achievement and contribution to the field of education as boring, then Kern Alexander is, indeed, exceedingly boring.
Finding His Niche
Kern Alexander was born in Marrowbone, Kentucky, current population 217, give or take a few. Marrowbone is about two hours south of Louisville. The state is known for its bourbon, whiskey, tobacco, horses, and basketball. Alexander’s early dreams, however, centered on playing professional football. When that didn’t pan out, his mother came out to their front porch one afternoon, where the recently-graduated Alexander was sitting in a rocking chair, and said, “Come on, we’ve got to get you started on something. Let’s go see Dr. Page.”
Dr. Page was dean of the College of Education at Western Kentucky University, where both of Alexander’s parents had graduated. Alexander’s father was a school superintendent, his mother a teacher. Education was in his blood. Dr. Page made Alexander his graduate assistant, and, as his mother had hoped, he had indeed started on something. Years later, when Alexander was president of Western Kentucky University, he named the new College of Education building for Dr. Page.
“I just began to get interested in education and stayed with it my entire career,” Alexander says in his typical understated fashion. He still speaks with a Southern drawl, and his words are thoughtful, even, and measured. He wears a dress shirt and tie each day, and his demeanor is one of politeness and respect. His Kentucky heritage shows beyond his accent: He is practical, hard-working, and enduring. He wears a dress shirt, yes, but he rolls up those sleeves every day as he researches, writes, and teaches about school finance and law.
In the pursuit of equity, justice, and rebuilding America’s education system, Kern Alexander has proven to be relentless.
The Ongoing Battle to Finance Education
“Education in the US has been in relative decline dating back to about 1980,” Alexander says. The US, he notes, recently ranked 32nd out of 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in taxes as a percentage of the GDP, so there is relatively less for education. “We’ve gone down, and down, and only Mexico and Chile are lower,” he says.
That decline in education funding spurred Alexander to take the path he has taken. “I’m also interested in higher education funding because it’s in such bad shape,” he explains. “Nationwide, we have students getting government loans and becoming indebted for higher education, and the rate of return doesn’t benefit most of them.”
Alexander is considering writing a book on the subject. “It’s such an overwhelming problem in this country,” he notes. “People go to school free of charge in most European countries. In England, they follow us a little bit, but you can go to Oxford for a year for one-fifth of the cost of a comparable American university. In the US, our students pay student loans for the rest of their lives.”
President at Two Universities
Over his academic career, Alexander has worked at the University of Florida (1972-85; he was a full professor with tenure here at the age of 28), Western Kentucky University (1985-88, serving as president), Virginia Tech (1988-94) Murray State (1994-2001, serving as president) and the University of Illinois (2002-present). In 2006, he also served as interim president of Murray State.
Of his presidencies, he says, “I’m attached to both Western Kentucky and Murray State. There are 13 degrees in my family from Western Kentucky. At Murray State, my son, Fieldon King Alexander, succeeded me as president in 2001.”
Father and son shared something else: the same office at Illinois. Fieldon King, who had been at the University of Illinois the previous four years, swapped offices with his father, with King going to the president’s office at Murray State and Kern taking over his son’s office on campus in Urbana. “I didn’t even have to change the pictures of my granddaughters,” Alexander says, smiling.
Of his presidencies, Alexander quotes former United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Wilson. “He was asked one time, Mr. Prime Minister, what is it like to be prime minister? He took a puff on his pipe and said, ‘It’s just one damned thing after another.’” Alexander laughs. “As president, you’re zigging and zagging, trying to satisfy the board, professors. and the newspapers. You have a chance to make change, a chance to improve your institution, which is very satisfying. That’s what I enjoyed most. It was a very rewarding experience for me.”
Among Alexander’s recent books is the sixth edition of The Law of Schools, Students and Teachers: In a Nutshell, published by West Academic, the major law book company. Coauthored again with his brother David, the text clocks in at a mere 750 pages—thus the “nutshell” reference.
“It’s for school teachers and principals,” he says. “It’s an ‘in the trenches’ handbook that explains the law in less depth but gives good guidance.”
He also came out in 2021 with a 1,181-page University Law casebook, (also published by West Academic) a book he coauthored with both his brother David and his son Klint, who is dean of the College of Law at the University of Wyoming. “My wife, Elizabeth, says ‘All I’ve ever heard from you is I’ve got to get on my book,’” Alexander says, laughing.
Satisfaction at Illinois
Alexander has greatly enjoyed his 20 years at the University of Illinois and in the College of Education. “I’ve had steady rewards every year, being able to work with good people,” he says. “I like my colleagues, I like the subjects that I teach, and I couldn’t ask for better leadership. Dean Anderson is outstanding.”
His greatest satisfaction at Illinois, however, is in his graduate students—teachers, principals, and superintendents. “Sometimes, to get through a 1,300-page book, you have to go pretty fast. But they raise their hands and talk about the issues. They are well-read and know the game. They’re sophisticated in our academic area, and I enjoy dealing with their questions.”
Consulting with Clinton
Being an expert witness in litigation cases in 22 states about inequity in public school funding over 25 years has connected Alexander with many high-level officials. One of those was Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas.
“He was receptive to everything we suggested,” Alexander recalls. “In fact, he took our recommendations and tried to get the legislature to go along with funding of education. He was pretty aggressive, and as a result, at first, wasn’t reelected as governor. But he modified his message and two years later he was reelected.”
Even after Clinton announced he was running for president, he would still invite Alexander to Little Rock to comment on how education funding for the state was improving and what Clinton had done for Arkansas. This relationship went on for seven or eight years, and when Clinton came out with his autobiography, My Life, Alexander was mentioned in two sections, and he received an autographed copy from the former president.
“He’s an impressive fellow,” Alexander says. “He was as sharp as he could be. He had good motivations and interests in children going to public school, and he contributed to education materially in Arkansas and then nationwide when he became president.
“It was a good experience for me in education politics.”
"Done Some of it Right"
With as much fondness, Alexander recalls the success he contributed to in suing the 22 states, resulting in more equitable funding for education. The supreme courts of both Ohio and Kentucky quoted him regarding the meaning of their own state constitutions. “I was able to define for the supreme courts of those states what their constitution meant, and it helped those states,” Alexander says.
It’s possible that the former attorney general of Tennessee, given the chance, would no longer call Kern Alexander “boring.” But Alexander, in his self-effacing way, shies away from praise.
“If you live long enough you can do a lot of things,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of stuff and done some of it right.”