The students were on deadline, and they were on a mission.
They piled into a car last Wednesday and pulled away from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, their public school in Lexington, Kentucky. With permission, they drove across town to a community college where Gov. Matt Bevin, R, was hosting a roundtable discussion on education featuring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The high schoolers – writers and editors for their school paper, the PLD Lamplighter – believed they were following the advice offered by DeVos last fall when she counseled: “It is easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles. It’s not so easy face to face.”
So the student journalists turned away from their screens and social media apps. They went in pursuit, they would later say, of “that face-to-face opportunity.”
They would never get it. They were shut out of the roundtable, advertised as an “open press event,” because they had not sent in an RSVP to an invitation they had never received and didn’t realize was required.
They were confused and dejected. But they still had to come up with copy – and fast.
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.
“How odd is it that even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away?” they asked in their piece, titled “No Seat at the Roundtable” and published on their website the following day.
“We expected the event to be intense,” the young journalists wrote. “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.”
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.
They wondered why there had been so little advance notice of the discussion, which focused on school “freedom” scholarships that would allow public funds to be used to send children to private and religious schools, even those that discriminate against LGBT students. DeVos, whose prior expertise in education policy was limited to steering her personal wealth to the cause of school choice, is seeking $5 billion for the program.
The journalists asked why the event was held at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, when most students and educators are busy.
“We wonder if the topic of school choice at the roundtable in Lexington is what kept public school students from being able to attend,” they speculated. “Don’t they want student input?”
The Lexington Herald-Leader picked up the students’ story on Friday and obtained a statement from a spokeswoman for DeVos. The local outlet sent the response along to the high schoolers, who added it to their account. It read: “No one from the Secretary’s staff was made aware that student journalists were attempting to attend the roundtable. We welcome student journalists and would have been happy for them to be in attendance. We are looking into what, if any, miscommunication might have happened between other staff on site for the event.”
Aides to the governor, who has been an eager partner of DeVos in her effort to expand school choice, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
The students added the clarification from the Department of Education in one of five updates appended to their editorial, as they continued to cover the fallout from the event. In the process, they learned that their dismay tapped into a broader story line.
“It was heartbreaking to us, as young journalists fired up to cover an event regarding the future of education, to leave empty-handed,” they wrote. “But as we researched we learned that we were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated.”
The members of the editorial board at the PLD Lamplighter, an award-winning student newspaper, learned of the event from local news reports on April 16, the day before it was scheduled to take place. They swiftly made plans to attend, seeing an opportunity “to demonstrate our professionalism.”
When they arrived at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, however, they encountered a man with the college’s badge on his blazer. One of the paper’s editors-in-chief, Abigail Wheatley, told him, “We’re here for Matt Bevin and Betsy DeVos’s roundtable discussion.”
“Well, okay,” he replied, according to the students. “Who are you with?”
They showed him their school identification and their press credentials, but he wasn’t satisfied. He asked to see their invitation.
“Invitation?” they recalled thinking. “For a roundtable discussion on education?”
The man waved them away.
“It was then that our story turned from news coverage to editorial,” they recounted.
Intent on coming up with something, they scoured social media for details about the discussion. They saw it mentioned on a government website that credentialed journalists were required to RSVP, but they wondered why this detail hadn’t been more widely broadcast. “Doesn’t open press imply open to ALL press including students?” they wondered.
They also found it curious that the event featured no public school teachers, parents or students. Not a single one of the 173 school districts in the state was represented, as the students noted. Instead, as local journalists who had properly RSVP’d observed, it was a platform for school-choice advocates to air their views to a sympathetic audience, including members of the Kentucky Board of Education, representatives of the business community and delegates from interest groups such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.
“It is remarkable to me that this is even remotely debatable,” Bevin said of the contest over school choice, which pits those who want more alternatives to traditional public schools against those who argue that transferring funds from the public system is a means of privatizing one of the country’s foundational civic institutions.
Kentucky has been a noted battleground in the struggle over public education. Last year, schools across the state were shuttered as teachers protested a budget plan that threatened to undermine their pensions. The showdown, which ended when lawmakers voted to override Bevin’s veto of a spending package that expanded education funding, was part of a wave of teacher strikes from West Virginia to Colorado to Arizona.
DeVos appeared to allude to these conflicts when she acknowledged “frustrations” in Kentucky, urging Bevin to persist. The Kentucky Education Association, the statewide teachers union, seized on those comments, promising that it had only begun to “frustrate your agenda.”
The students asked the superintendent of their school system, Fayette County’s Manny Caulk, if he had been invited. He said he had not. Meanwhile, Tyler Murphy, a member of the county’s board of education, lampooned the visit on Twitter.
After the discussion, Bevin told reporters, “The people here care about the kids. Every single person who sat around this table cares about the children – not about funding, not about territory, not about power, not about politics. They care about parents and they care about students.”
The student journalists labeled his statement “interesting.”
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,” they wrote. “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.”
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