Student journalists from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School packed a car last Wednesday and drove, with permission from their Lexington, KY public school, to a local community college where their governor was holding an education roundtable discussion with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The high schoolers were editors and writers for their nationally award-winning school newspaper, the PLD Lamplighter, The Washington Post reports. They wanted to follow DeVos’s advice to students last fall, when she said, “It is easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles. It’s not so easy face to face.” As they said later, they were in pursuit of “that face-to-face opportunity” when they drove to see Republican governor Matt Bevin speak openly with DeVos.
But before they had a chance to do so, they were turned away. Advertised as an “open press event,” the roundtable required them to RSVP to an invitation they never got and didn’t know was required. But instead of writing about nothing, they decided to fight back: the students wrote an editorial criticizing DeVos and Bevin of saying they care about the well-being of students while doing little to actually help them.
“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. “No Seat at the Roundtable” was published on the school newspaper site the day after the incident.
“We expected the event to be intense,” the student 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.”
The students began to see their experience as a microcosm for the education secretary’s lack of competence and experience for her role. They contemplated why the event had barely been publicized and why the details surrounding attendance were unclear. They criticized the discussion’s focus on school “freedom” scholarships that would allow legislators to use public funds to send children to religious private schools, even those that are discriminatory.
And they asked the important question of why the event, a discussion about education policy, was held on a Wednesday at 11 a.m., when most students and educators are in school.
“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 said. “Don’t they want student input?”
None of the attendees at the event represented any of the 173 school districts in the entire state, the students noted, and not a single public school parent, teacher, or student was in attendance. Instead, members of interest groups such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and other members of the business community were at the RSVP-only “open roundtable.”