February 24, 2015
House Bill 236 Testimony for the House Education Committee
ELIZA JANE: Good morning, members of the House Education Committee. My name is Eliza Jane Schaeffer. I am a junior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington and a member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. I am honored to be here today. With me are my colleagues, Amanda Wahlstedt, a junior at Knox Central High School in Barbourville and Sahil Nair, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar in Lexington. We are also joined by other members of the Student Voice Team and many adult allies who are sitting behind us in support.
Imagine, for a second, that you are a Kentucky public school student. You spend seven hours or more in the school system every day. You watch as your peers struggle with the new grading system. You see students standing up at lunch because there isn’t enough space in the cafeteria. You find the remedial math program ineffective.
Or, perhaps, you love your school experience. The new math textbooks helped you finally understand geometry. You thrive under the new grading system. Your outstanding English teacher deserves recognition. You love your school’s block scheduling.
Either way, these are all assessments that only a Kentucky public school student can make.
We spend 30 hours each week in the classroom; we know when something is or isn’t working. Do we not know better than anyone else what it feels like to attend a Kentucky public school in 2015?
Yet Kentucky law, as it currently stands, makes it difficult for students to contribute to making our schools better. Students are excluded from representation on many of our most important school governance bodies. In most cases, from SBDMs to district school boards to superintendent screening committees, we are shut out from participation and even observation.
We are here today to demonstrate that Kentucky can and should do better for its students. Through the stories we share from our peers and adult allies, we hope that you will see why House Bill 236, a bill that seeks to allow for the possibility of students serving on superintendent screening committees, is so important not only to us but also to the Commonwealth.
AMANDA: Henry Clay senior Ross Boggess, who is here with us, described what happens when informed and engaged students attempt to work as full partners with adults to improve schools at the systemic level. “I was tired of student council meetings only planning dances, pep rallies and blood drives,” he told us. Ross is someone who has regularly attended SBDM meetings craving more substantive work.
But Ross encountered a glass ceiling at every turn. Though he was an informed and civically-engaged senior, eager to use his experience to help improve his school, he was not permitted to speak or vote on issues at SBDM meetings. He knew so much, yet was taken seriously so little.
Like many of her peers, Emily Salamanca, a junior who also attends Henry Clay High School, said that she longs for more than just student governance and gleeful political clubs and wants a chance to prove that students have more to offer than running bake sales and prom committees. She told us, “We crave a real voice.”
As a Knox Central junior who prides myself on caring about my school and community, I was not even aware that a new superintendent had been chosen when my district made the switch, and the lack of open conversation about it confused me. I was always told that we students are the most important people within our school. But, why wasn’t the search for a new superintendent ever discussed in even one of my high school classes?
Ross’, Emily’s, and my own experience speak to the probability that serious students interested in improving our schools at systemic levels will be treated as tokens. When we are treated as separate, we are also treated as lesser. The serious students I know want to be integrated as partners with adults to work together to improve our schools.
SAHIL: When Fayette County Public Schools began looking for a new superintendent in November, members of the Student Voice Team, with the stories of students like Ross, Emily, and Amanda in mind, asked the school board to include a student representative on the screening committee. Although board members told us they would make every effort to include students in the superintendent selection process, they said the makeup of the screening committee was set by state law and did not include a student member.
That law, and a strict interpretation of it by the Attorney General’s office, constrained the school board’s sincere attempts to involve students more deeply in this critically important work. Although the law purports to create a more inclusive process, it stops short by denying representation from those that matter the most. KRS 160.352 limits the membership of the superintendent screening committee to two teachers, one board of education member, one principal, one parent, one classified employee, and, in some cases, one minority member.
This is not acceptable to us. As a statewide group of middle school through college-age students working as partners to improve Kentucky public schools, the Student Voice Team knows firsthand how informed young people can contribute significantly to discussions about school governance.
In our two years working in partnership with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, we have spearheaded rallies to restore school funding to more adequate levels, led deep investigations into the hidden barriers that prevent students from making smooth transitions to college, facilitated policy discussions with students from across Kentucky about a variety of pressing education issues, and made presentations at numerous local and national professional development conferences showcasing our evolving student voice model.
We know that when informed students are supported as full partners in improving schools, our schools and the broader community benefit. That is why when it comes to including students in the superintendent search process, we are disappointed that Kentucky law and the Attorney General have denied the mere possibility of our participation. We are the chief stakeholders after all. Shouldn’t we at least be considered as partners at the decision-making table?
ELIZA JANE: We asked Representative Graham to file HB 236 because we believe that allowing districts to add a student member to their superintendent screening committees is a good place to start.
More and more, it seems, people closely involved in improving schools are recognizing the value of student voice. A little over a year ago, one of our members came before you to talk about the Gates Foundation’s Measuring Effective Teaching study which showed that student feedback was the single most important indicator of teacher effectiveness.
PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, compared 15 year-olds in 65 cities from across the world and, according to researcher Andreas Schleicher, found that the most successful students are those who feel ownership of their education. In all the best performing school systems, said Mr. Schleicher, “students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes.” Giving students the power to help determine school leadership by integrating us in superintendent screening committees reflects that type of ownership.
The ‘stuvoice’ hashtag, which is widely used by students, teachers, and administrators alike, allows policymakers to gather student feedback. Why not institutionalize this process? Why not incorporate student feedback into the search for a new superintendent by incorporating a student representative on the screening committee?
As members of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, we feel that a student would make a valuable addition, broadening the scope of the screening committee and bringing fresh perspectives to the superintendent selection process. Having a student serve in this capacity will also underscore to the broader community that when it comes to school leadership, the ability to listen to the voices of young constituents is essential.
We recommend a process similar to the one used in Montgomery County, Maryland, the state’s most populous county, where students annually elect a representative to the school board. This involves prospective candidates turning in a petition with a minimum number of signatures from students and teachers in order to run. Voting would happen online via a link on the district website, where students in middle through high school could log in with their student emails to vote. The top two candidates would move on to a final run-off election and the winner would become the next student representative. He or she would have to undergo the same training that parent and teacher representatives do.
Of course, all of this is optional. Districts would not have to take our advice or even allow for a student member on the screening committee. This bill just empowers them to make that decision.
AMANDA: Those who are concerned about granting students too much responsibility in this area of school governance should know that this is not uncharted territory. In Federal Way Public Schools in Washington, students are a formal part of the superintendent search process. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a peer-elected student on the school board, and Hawaii has an advisory student member on the state board of education who can vote on committees. Closer to home, Dupont Manual High School in Louisville is leading the way by including a student representative on its site-based decision making council.
Lisa Deffendahl, the director of communications and community relations at Fayette County Public Schools, recently shared with us her own, remarkable story about serving as the president of the Hawaii State Student Council in the 1980s:
“The top issue from the state conference when I was president was a call to have a student member on the Hawaii State Board of Education” Ms. Deffendahl told us. At the time, she explained, the student council sent a representative to the twice monthly state board meetings, and students were expected to give a brief update from her organization.
Ms. Deffendahl and seven other members of the state student council spent an entire school year lobbying the legislature to add a student member and then got their bill passed against all odds.
Ms. Deffendahl said that the change required a state constitutional amendment, which was put to the vote of the people, and while she was away at college the next fall, they won the election. To this day, and thanks largely to the teenaged Lisa Deffendahl, there is a student who sits on Hawaii’s state board of education.
“There is nothing that kids can’t achieve if they put their minds to it and I’m living proof,” she said. “Ten years later, the state board chair tracked down my mom and dad and asked them to tell me that he was wrong. He said having a student on the state board has been the best thing that ever could have happened and he wanted to apologize for chastising me and trying to get me to give up the fight.”
SAHIL: In the course of building support for HB 236, we have heard concerns related to whether or not students could be entrusted with the confidentiality issues inherent in a school governance matter dealing with personnel issues.
Members of the Student Voice Team take the issue seriously, and we have consulted with experts in Kentucky and across the country to develop a response that we hope will put supporters of the bill at ease. There are strong legal and practical reasons to show why high school students should indeed be allowed to handle confidentiality issues that may arise in service on the superintendent screening committee.
On the legal front, First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker of Dinsmore & Shohl said, “There is no legal reason why a minor cannot have access to confidential information which may exist in a Superintendent search. Any minor who has access to such confidential information as a result of being involved in a search process would also be required to maintain that information confidentially and would be bound by the same rules [and] laws relating to such confidentiality.”
And William Thro, University of Kentucky’s General Counsel, added that to the extent that federal law may prohibit minors from accessing the confidential information inherent in many superintendent searches, the prospective superintendent candidate simply can waive his or her privacy rights to allow the minor to see the materials. Thro likens this process to what a patient needs to do to voluntarily waive consent to disclose his or her own protected health information. The assumption is that any superintendent candidate who really wants the job will recognize the need to disclose to the student member, who likely will be mature and responsible. And if there is any further doubt, Mr. Thro told us, a minor’s parent or guardian can execute an agreement to keep the information confidential.
On the practical front, we spoke with Rachel Gunther about the confidentiality issue. Ms. Gunther helps direct Youth on Board in Boston, which has been training young people to serve on boards with adults in Massachusetts and other states for decades. She told us that there is no difference between young people and adults in the area of personnel and confidentiality and in general, young people act the same as their adult counterparts in these situations. But the key, she said, is training.
“In general,” Ms. Gunther said, “a board or selection committee, is always going to be made up of people with a range of experiences and expertise. Young people bring THEIR expertise to the table for this and all situations related to the work they are doing. The other thing is that all members of a group need to be supported, trained and prepared. That is something that we are always very clear about in our trainings. There is no reason to think that young people have any less capacity to do this work than their adult counterparts.”
ELIZA JANE: In fact, we found some solid precedent for student representatives on school governance bodies very successfully managing issues related to trust and confidentiality.
Maryland has one of the strongest traditions of student participation on school boards in the country. High school students there have a seat on school boards in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. The student member on the Maryland State Board of Education, a Frederick County high school senior, can vote on most issues, including the budget. In Anne Arundel County, the student school board member can vote on everything, with no exclusions.
We spoke with former Montgomery County, Maryland student Alan Shay, who was elected to the school board at age 15 and is now an undergraduate at Harvard.
“During the superintendent search process,” he told us, “I was involved with hiring a search firm, reading applications, and interviewing candidates at every stage of the process. There was never any modicum of concern over my confidentiality - more so over that of community stakeholders who were brought into the process. In the history of our Board, there has never been an issue with confidentiality on the part of our student member. They have always responded to media inquiries with prudence and discretion, typically by yielding all requests to the proper school system representatives, which is what the other Board members do anyways. Any excessive or inappropriate pressure to reveal information that the student member has encountered from a parent, teacher, principal, or otherwise, has always been swiftly reported, reprimanded, and addressed by our Board staff.”
Montgomery County adult board members back up students like Alan. “My experience has been many students take it more seriously than some of the adults and come better prepared,” said board member Patricia O’Neill who has served with 10 student members since 1998. “The hallmark of these kids is that they do their homework.”
AMANDA: Adding a student member to the superintendent screening committee is not just beneficial, it is necessary. As Mary Ann Blankenship of the Kentucky Education Association told us, "It is the role of the six existing members to take into consideration the views of the many special interests involved in making a decision; however, students offer a completely different perspective that cannot be adequately represented by a distant adult figure.”
The public education system was created to shape the children of America into contributing members of our communities. We are required by law to take a citizenship class and class time is devoted to teaching us about how the world works. We routinely lead clubs and organize events. And sometimes, we even draft bills.
As Charlie Myers of the Governor’s Scholars Program recently told us: Students are more than just the leaders of tomorrow; we are the leaders of today. Now, we are ready for a chance to put our skills to good use. We want to be more than just simple consumers of our education. We want to be creators too.
ELIZA JANE: When it comes to education, it is undeniable that students have the most skin in the game. Because we are the first to feel the effects of policy decisions, it follows that we should be included as partners at the table to share our insights to help improve a system that affects us so directly. Kentucky has long been at the forefront of education reform. Reforming school governance to include the possibility of having students on superintendent screening committees ensures Kentucky will stay on the cutting edge and shows the entire nation that the Commonwealth knows student voice matters.
SAHIL: On behalf of all the students at this table, in the audience today, and across the Commonwealth, we ask that the members of this Committee recommend HB 236 to the floor favorably. We’d like to thank you for your attention, and we are now happy to take your questions.
Sahil is a co-founder of KSVT and former member. He was previously Chair of the State and External Affairs Committee. Sahil graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar in 2015 and Georgetown University in 2018.