June 10, 2014

Student Voice Team Thanks Gov. Beshear, Legislators for Restoring School Funding

On behalf of the Kentucky Education Action Team, members of the Student Voice Team thanked members of the General Assembly and Gov. Steve Beshear for restoring school funding and supporting students at a gathering in the State Reception Room in the Kentucky State Capitol on June 10, 2015.

Ashton Bishop: Governor Beshear, members of the General Assembly and other friends, my name is Ashton Bishop and I just finished 7th grade last week at Green County Middle School in Greensburg, Kentucky about an hour southwest of here.

Like many other districts in this state, Green County struggles with making sure students have what they need to learn at high levels, and that is not because students or teachers don’t care.

Though I take a lot of pride in my school, it is not an especially wealthy one and it has its share of problems beyond academic ones.

In my middle school, there are 358 students, 67% of whom receive free or reduced lunch. Kids talk about drugs all the time and how their parents are using and selling them. And I personally know students my age—I’m 13 years old—who are or were recently pregnant.

But just because we are up against a lot does not mean we can’t achieve. For me and many of my friends, education is a life line and our best path to a better future. I, for one, like math and science, and I really hope to go to medical school one day.

That is why I was so saddened to learn that due to budget cuts, many teaching jobs at my school have been filled with less qualified aides. Three teachers I know have recently lost their jobs. Our Internet is really slow, and we have a wireless lab where more than half the computers in there don’t work.

I know I am not alone in caring about my school and getting the best possible education I can, but when I look around me, I’ve sometimes wondered whether people in charge of making the decisions about whether to improve our schools feel the same.

Meghana Kudrimoti: For those in the know, Ashton’s wonder should and did translate into outrage. And here, a little historical context is in order: When the Prichard Committee last updated its Top 20 by 2020 Report, Kentucky ranked 41st in the nation in per pupil K-12 funding. 41st! The implications of that number were even more troubling.

At the same time we were demanding more from our students, we were not keeping up with their needs. The General Assembly took a critical step in 2009 by mandating higher standards but ever since, state funding for specific programs was drastically cut. It was reduced or eliminated for such essentials as textbooks and other classroom materials, professional development for teachers and preschool.

The state cuts combined with other ones from the federal government put the pressure on local districts to increase property taxes.

But what happens if you live in a district with fewer homes and cheaper land? As you can imagine, the gap between wealthier and poorer districts grows. And this is a fact that is not lost on students.

When a team of us travelled to Whitesburg, Kentucky in Letcher County last fall to speak with high schoolers there, we asked them bluntly: Do you see any differences between the resources in your school and those of students in other districts?

Six teenaged heads nodded vigorously and one girl, Courtney, seemed to speak for the group:

“I do have a friend that goes to a high school way far away from here,” she told us wistfully. ‘They have more programs in their school than I can count. Their academic level where they get more funds is so much more than what it is here.”

But if there is a silver lining to the growing concern of students and others about the impact of the erosion of state school funds, the evidence is right here in this room.

For the first time in a long time, education advocates from eight of Kentucky’s most influential organizations came together and spoke as one. The Kentucky Education Action Team (KEAT) representing 155,000 Kentuckians from across the state decided to focus like a laser beam on renewing our investment in Kentucky schools and Kentucky kids.

KEAT set out to activate its members and make the case that Kentucky students could no longer wait for a deeper investment in our schools. The Our Students Can't Wait Campaign was born.

Gentry Fitch: When the Student Voice Team was invited to work with KEAT, we were moved by our charge to amplify the voices of young people in policymaking to improve Kentucky education. We had been hearing from students like Ashton and Courtney from across the state and wanted to share their stories about the classroom impact of school funding shortages.

So we used every tool at our disposal to get the message out. And what an arsenal we had! Among our techniques:

  • We conducted interviews and roundtables with other students about the impact of inadequate school funding .

  • We spoke out at KEAT’s local and statewide rallies.

  • We connected with other student voice oriented groups such as Commissioner Holiday’s Next Generation Student Council, the Mayor’s Youth Council and Kentucky’s Youth Assembly.

  • We lead a mass and simultaneous tweet to reach nearly 100,000 people on social media at a critical time during the legislative session.

  • We published opinion pieces in our local newspapers.

  • We organized a mass Instagram campaign that asked students everywhere to post selfies with the “We Can’t Wait” slogan on a handmade sign and

  • We even visited the Senate floor at the height of the legislative session.

We had the backs of adult allies who were pushing so hard to improve our schools. And if you’re wondering just how so many busy middle and high school students ever had the time to do this in such a compact amount of time, we’ll let you in on our little secret: Snow days.

Andrew Brennen: Though I recently celebrated my 18th birthday, the vast majority of other students in Kentucky are too young to vote. And that is why we are so fortunate to have so many allies—many of whom are here with us today—who are not too young.

Governor Beshear and members of the General Assembly, it’s my job to get to the bottom line. Everyone says that investing in education is investing in the future, but what you did this year means something in real terms for today's students.

Thanks to you, for the first time in eight years, the Kentucky legislature has significantly increased investments in early childhood programs, an act that includes:

  • $96 million to restore child care subsidy funds to help hundreds of working families

  • $18 million to expand preschool for thousands of lower-income 4-year olds and

  • $9 million for the HANDS home visiting program to ensure more of Kentucky’s youngest kids have a smooth transition from home to school

Thanks to you again, the state’s main school funding formula, called SEEK, will see a $189 million increase resulting in raises for teachers and school employees doing so much more with so much less.

Thanks to you as well, Governor Beshear and legislators, and your ability to restore some of our schools’ flexible focus funds, my fellow students will soon start to see improved Internet access and technology and textbooks that aren’t older than we are.

We still have a lot of work to do to ensure our schools maintain adequate funding—and we are up against a lot. After all, we are still recovering from a devastating recession and as seems often—or maybe always—to be the case, there’s another huge election year ahead.

But there is clearly a growing consensus that investing in Kentucky students pays real dividends—for individuals, employers and the broader community--and must continue to be a top priority.

As students, we don’t personally know--but we have definitely heard—that tax reform is scary and hard work. But if there is one lesson from the way Kentucky’s education advocates joined forces with the Governor and legislators to renew our investment in our youth this year, it’s that we know, you know, we Kentucky students are well worth it.

We recognize the challenge of producing a balanced budget, much less one that provides needed additional funds for education, yet you fought for us anyway.

Governor Beshear and members of the General Assembly, we are so grateful for your political courage in this last legislative session around school funding. You fought for us and our schools at a time with no new revenue when we Kentucky students really needed it.

As students, we appreciate the opportunity to have had a chance to speak out on the critical issue of adequately funding our schools. You, Governor Beshear and legislators are setting a strong example for Kentucky's young people in making solid decisions, however difficult, that represent long-term investments, as opposed to immediate gratification. I know it's somewhat ironic for me to be telling you this, but I mean this in the best possible way: That is a very mature thing to do!

So in the final analysis, We Can’t Wait another moment to say thank you for sticking up for Kentucky kids.

Linzie Ashton Bishop

Linzie Ashton Bishop

Ashton is a former member of KSVT. She graduated from Green County High School in 2020.

Andrew Brennen

Andrew Brennen

Andrew is a Senior Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. He is a former member and was previously the Student Director. Andrew graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2014 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019. He is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Gentry Fitch

Gentry Fitch

Gentry is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. He was previously Chair of the Postsecondary Committee. Gentry graduated from West Jessamine High School in 2015 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019.

Meghana Kudrimoti

Meghana Kudrimoti

Meghana is a former member of KSVT. She graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2015 and the University of Kentucky in 2019.