Kentucky Students Fight to be Included in School Governance

FRANKFORT — Legislation proposed by a group of middle and high school students was filed today in the Kentucky General Assembly by Rep. Derrick Graham to include students in certain areas of school governance. The students are part of the Student Voice Team, which aims to elevate the voices of students as partners in improving Kentucky schools.

The students became interested in the issue last November after Tom Shelton, superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools, resigned. The students asked to be included in the superintendent screening process for a new superintendent but were denied a seat at the table.

Members of the local school board said they were unable to meet the students’ request because of a two-decades-old law defining the membership of a superintendent screening committee. The Student Voice Team then launched a campaign to amend the law to allow student participation in the committee. The campaign began with a demonstration outside Fayette County Public Schools’ central office with students holding signs reading “Student Voice Matters” and “You taught us what we know, FCPS. Now, trust us to apply it.”

The Student Voice Team’s initiative reflects a growing national awareness of the value that students, as key stakeholders in schools’ success, can bring to education policymaking. In Montgomery County, Maryland, students elect a peer to serve on the district board of education. In Federal Way Public Schools in Washington, students are a significant part of the superintendent search process. And in Hawaii, a student serves in an advisory role on the state board of education and as a voting member on some of its committees.

The bill filed today would amend current law to allow a district school board to add a high school student, elected by his or her peers, to the superintendent screening committee. The Student Voice Team recommends having nomination petitions for high school students to run for the seat with the representative elected by middle and high school students through a primary and subsequent runoff election process.

“Representative Graham’s sponsorship of the bill is the first real legislative step we have seen to recognize the added value a student’s perspective brings to improving our public schools,” said Jamie Smith, a junior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Kentucky, and a member of the group.  “We spend upwards of 35 hours a week in a classroom and have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.  We just want to share that insight to improve our public schools.”

The six required positions on the superintendent screening committee are two teachers, elected by teachers; one classified employee, elected by classified employees; one principal, elected by principals; one parent or guardian, elected by PTA presidents, and one school board member appointed by the chairman.  Rep. Graham’s legislation would provide an optional position for a peer-elected high school student.

With the filing of the bill, the Student Voice Team begins the legislative portion of its Student Voice Matters campaign.  The coordinated effort involves student-written op-eds, a resolution drafted by students to be introduced in both legislative chambers, outreach to legislators and education and youth advocacy groups and testimony before the House Education Committee, scheduled for February 17.  Nicole Fielder, a West Jessamine High School senior who serves on the team’s school governance committee said, “We want Kentucky to remain on the forefront of education innovation. Unleashing the insight and energy of informed students and involving us in deeper levels of school governance will help to do just that.”

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. From 2012 to 2021, KSVT was incubated at the Prichard Committee, a nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky for all ages.

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