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Giving Students a Seat at the Legislative Table

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by Kip Hottman (@KipHottman). Hottman is a Spanish teacher at Oldham County High School near Louisville, Kentucky, and a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Fellow.

Kip Hottman: Student voice. These two words evoke deep emotions within my teacher soul. It is difficult to express all of the strong feelings that I associate with student voice. My response to student voice would fill the word count long before hitting the actual purpose of this blog. If I could distill my reaction to student voice into one word, I would say finally. Finally, students have a seat at the table. Growing up in the public school system in the 1980s and 1990s, student voice didn't have an ear in the education realm. Fast-forward 20 years...  

Students in Kentucky now take ownership of their learning and use their voice to help shape policy that directly impacts education. To promote these efforts, the Prichard Committee, a grassroots organization advocating for public awareness of issues in Kentucky education, created a Student Voice Team (SVT). The purpose of the SVT is to support students as partners in improving education. The team currently consists of nearly 70 middle and high school students and college undergrads from across the state.  

The SVT recently received national attention with House Bill 236 (HB 236), an attempt to allow school districts the option of placing a student on committees to screen superintendent candidates. During session, I supported the SVT by engaging my Professional Learning Network (PLN) and utilizing social media. I advocated for HB 236 and for the SVT's mission because I am a believer in the importance of student voice. I believe that it is necessary for education reform to be shaped by the voice of all stakeholders—including students. HB 236 was a crucial step towards reaching this goal. What lessons did the SVT learn from this experience? Ashton Bishop, an eighth grade member of the SVT, agreed to co-write a blog post to capture her experience with HB 236.

Ashton Bishop: I am currently a member of the Prichard Committee's Student Voice Team (SVT). The SVT allows me to stand up for people who often get ignored—such as students. During the 2015 Kentucky General Assembly, we introduced House Bill (HB) 236, and it was well received. The Senate Education Committee approved our bill with the support of the majority, and in the aftermath, two senators attached amendments unrelated to our goals. These amendments proved to be too controversial and the bill didn't pass the Senate floor. As students, we learn everything that our textbooks and teachers have to offer, but nothing could have prepared us for politics in person.

As young people, we knew that one of our best allies would be other students, some of whom are old enough to vote. We turned to social media to gather support for HB 236. Multiple news outlets picked up the story of our bill. It felt like we were in the middle of a storm. My cell phone would buzz during class to alert me of an email, group text, or tweet. Quickly, it became such a distraction that I feared I would be sent to detention. I realized that it would just be easier to be in Frankfort as much as possible to stay on top of the situation.

Our team was frequently quoted, interviewed, and contacted for news stories. We were likened to David meeting Goliath. One memorable news caption was "Schoolhouse Rock meets House of Cards," parodying a popular Netflix show. In fact, I had to look up the show to understand the comparison because, with it being for mature audiences only, I have never been allowed to watch it.

I found myself being swept up by the tide of politics. I testified in front of the Senate Education Committee on the nature of our bill. I rallied on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. My mother watched the news one night, only to realize I was on the lead story. I come from a town of less than 2,200 citizens, and suddenly my name was everywhere. Don't believe me? Search for me on Google. I spent a whirlwind week bouncing between Frankfort and Louisville for my state BETA Club convention. It was kind of nice to be inconspicuous in a group of kids for a change. Then I left the hotel and a kid approached me and said, "Weren't you on the news last night?" Suddenly, my sense of privacy was gone. I now realize that if you are going to play with the big boys, you have to be ready for anything.

In the end, our bill did not pass. We were the victims of politics at its worst. I learned that sometimes good bills and ideas do not get passed by our legislators. Sometimes a good idea gets hidden by a bad one. Or one adult will trade a favor for something they do or do not want at the expense of the people who elected them. In politics, few things are as they appear to be. Just because HB 236 did not pass does not mean that we will not continue to pursue this option. We will just keep coming back until it does pass and students in the state of Kentucky are able to have a voice.

When the dust settled, I looked back and realized that I missed a total of two weeks of school working in the state capital for our bill. My favorite part of the whole process just so happened to be behind the curtain, the closed door, all the sneaky action. If you are a politician, or know one who tells you the truth, you know what I am talking about. For me, the whole process was a chance to see how politics really works. It was ugly and frustrating and exciting.

It was the chance of a lifetime, and it was hard work, but it has been worth it. I was able to learn things about the process that kids my age could not dream about. Luckily, I got to go through the process with some extraordinary people. I know all we did would not have been possible without the amazing adult allies. From my perspective, the problems and people that stood in our way did not make the process tricky (it was already like that); they just made it more fun. Student voice matters. My voice matters. I will not stop trying to ensure that other students have their voices heard. No matter how sneakily some of the adults behave.

Kip Hottman: Having a voice is of utmost importance in any profession. In Rick Hess's book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, he paints a vivid picture of proactive ways that teachers use their voice to create solutions-oriented change. In Kentucky, students have taken on the role of being the change-maker, influencing a positive culture shift. The SVT's work has transformed the definition of student voice, providing valuable lessons for all educators.

  • Students want real world opportunities to use their skills and collaborate with educators. HB 236 was created by educators and students through solutions-oriented conversation.
  • Being connected is part of the daily routine for students, so they understand how to utilize their networks to support a cause. More than 250 students rallied at the Capitol on March 23rd to support HB 236 and the SVT.
  • Having a voice creates a passion, which fuels the intrinsic motivation that is needed to be successful. The SVT spent countless hours at the Capitol supporting a bill in which they believed.  
  • It is important for all stakeholders to work together towards a cause. Collaboration replacing a culture of isolation will enable both parties to become allies when shaping education.
  • No matter what happens, stay proactive and focus on solutions. Even though HB 236 didn't pass, the SVT learned an important lesson and is reflecting on what to do differently next session.

Student voice can no longer be ignored. If we are to build true relationships among all stakeholders, it must become the norm. My eyes were opened to how paramount student voice can be as I stood on the steps of the Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky. I watched as 250 students led an amazing rally, driven by their passion for a bill they had written. The memory of that day still resonates with me and stirs up deep emotions—I was so proud of those students. Their message was clear. Their words were loud. Their voice was heard. It was beautiful.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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