High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

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