‘No seat at the roundtable.’ High school journalists turned away from Betsy DeVos event

Betsy DeVos hosts roundtable discussion on school choice in Kentucky

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at a roundtable discussion at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at a roundtable discussion at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.

Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s student publication, the PLD Lamplighter, lamented in an editorial Thursday that its journalists were turned away from covering a visit to Lexington by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos and Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday appeared at a roundtable discussion of school choice advocates at Bluegrass Community and Technical College about DeVos’ federal scholarship tax credit initiative.

But the Dunbar students said they were turned away by a man wearing a BCTC badge when they arrived to cover the event, told that it was invitation-only. PLD Lamplighter is a student-run news publication at Dunbar.

The students said in an editorial titled ‘No Seat at the Roundtable’ that ... “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 it that even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away?.”

U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill said in an email Friday morning that “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.”

BCTC spokeswoman Michelle Sjogren said Friday that “our security people were working off of instructions from Secretary DeVos’ team, they were told there was an invitation list.”

“The instructions we were given were ...whoever is coming in needs to be on the list,” said Sjogren. “We had an RSVP list.”

Sjogren said she was made aware of the editorial Thursday night and sent an email to Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains.

“I said, ...Dunbar students and any high school students are welcome on our campus at anytime. This was not our event and we did not set the protocol for it. We were just following instructions. It wasn’t our decision,” Sjogren said.

Bevin’s office did not immediately respond about the student editorial Friday morning.

“It was heartbreaking to us, as young journalists fired up to cover an event regarding the future of education, to leave empty-handed. But as we researched we learned that we were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated,” the editorial on said.

Fayette County Education Association President Jessica Hiler told the Herald-Leader that she was also denied entrance when she went to BCTC and asked to observe the roundtable. Teachers in Kentucky have opposed school choice legislation in Kentucky’s General Assembly.

A news release for the event sent out the day before said that journalists who wanted to attend had to RSVP by 8 a.m. on Wednesday. The students didn’t receive the news release. A post on the U.S. Department of Education’s website that also mentioned the RSVP for journalists said the event was open to the press.

“Not that we’re happy about it, but we understand why a student news organization wouldn’t have been considered important enough to receive a copy of the media press release, “ the editorial said.

But the students asked, “Why, after our explanation that we were not given the press release asking for an RSVP, weren’t we allowed to enter as students and stakeholders?.”

The students said they didn’t think it was fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.

DeVos’ proposal, federal officials said, would inject up to $5 billion yearly into locally controlled scholarship programs, federal officials have said. Individual and business taxpayers nationwide would contribute to scholarship granting organizations. The contributors would receive a nonrefundable dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit, but no contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of the contribution.

Education Freedom Scholarships would create a federal tax credit that would allow families to control the use of scholarships for their child’s elementary and secondary education, which could include career and technical apprenticeships and dual enrollment in high school and college programs, DeVos said.

The students’ adviser said they wanted to participate as students and journalists.

“The students representing our publication were persistent and thorough in their efforts to cover the event. They wanted the opportunity to engage not only as reporters but also as public education students,” Dunbar teacher Wendy Turner, the student journalists’ adviser told the Herald-Leader Friday. “As a veteran journalism adviser, I have seen teen reporters not be taken seriously, but I encouraged them to feel confident in the value of their own voices. And they did.”

There was no representative from a public school district on the roundtable. When a reporter asked Bevin about that Wednesday, he said, “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. They care about students. It was a broad representation of people who care about those things.”

The students said in the editorial that they learned something from the experience even though they could not attend.

“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 editorial said.