March 2, 2015
Students Can be Part of Superintendent Search
By Hiatt Allen
On Thursday, the Kentucky House passed House Bill 236 with a vote of 88 to 5. The bill, conceived by the Student Voice Team, amends KRS 160.352 to allow for an optional student representative on superintendent screening committees.
In the course of building support, the Student Voice Team found that some legislators question whether students are capable of following confidentiality guidelines set forth by such committees. We take the concern seriously and have done our research to allay it.
The superintendent screening committee currently consists of two teachers, one classified staff, one principal, one board of education member, one parent and, in some cases, one minority member. Each member must undergo training before serving on the committee in order to understand how to navigate the process and the information. Students would — and should — be treated no differently.
Legal concern about students serving in this capacity as minors has no basis in fact. As First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker of Dinsmore and Shohl put it: "There is no legal reason why a minor cannot have access to confidential information which may exist in a superintendent search.
But, if attorney confidence isn't enough assurance, University of Kentucky's General Counsel William Thro explained there is an easy fix: Minors could simply have a parent sign a confidentiality agreement on their behalf. Thro elaborated that legal issues could be further mitigated by having candidates waive their confidentiality rights, just as patients do with regard to disclosing health information.
Yet another objection to our legislation stems from the suspicion that being an adolescent implies an inherent disadvantage in handling sensitive information. But that is selling the potential of young people short. A cursory look at our history textbooks and the headlines proves that in the realm of public policy, students are capable of doing remarkably high-level work.
When he was just 14, future President John Quincy Adams represented the United States on a mission in Russia to convince Catherine the Great to support the cause of the United States. Arkansas' teenaged Little Rock Nine worked in sync with the civil rights movement to spearhead the integration of the state's public schools during the height of racial tension. Even more recently, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize fighting for the rights of girls worldwide to receive an equitable education.
But even in the specialized context of serving on a superintendent screening committee, students who already serve in high capacities of school governance across America further neutralize the concern about confidentiality.
In the District of Columbia and Hawaii, students serve on the state board of education. And in Montgomery County, Md., students have elected a student representative to the board for decades. Alan Xie, who at 16 successfully served on the Montgomery County board as a voting member of the superintendent screening committee, is adamant about students' ability to manage sensitive information. "In the history of our board," he said, "there has never been an issue with confidentiality on the part of our student member."
Rachel Gunther from the Boston-based Youth on Board, which trains young people to serve on boards with adults, backs Xie up. When it comes to ensuring students can handle sensitive information related to board service, she emphasized, training is everything. Gunther told us decades of field experience dictate that there is virtually no difference between young people and adults in the ability to apply discretion with sensitive personnel and other information.
Students spend 35 hours a week in the classroom and are the chief stakeholders in our schools. Why rule out even the possibility of considering us as partners at the superintendent screening table?
Just as we have always trusted the General Assembly to act in our best interest, we ask you to trust us, as responsible and engaged young citizens, to handle confidential information inherent in the superintendent screening process.
Now is the time to pass House Bill 236.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.
This op-ed originally ran in the Courier Journal.