Kentucky students get hard lesson in politics from lawmakers

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Posted: Mar 11, 2015 8:31 PM
Kentucky students get hard lesson in politics from lawmakers

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A group of bright-eyed, clean-cut high school students whose ideas of government were shaped by "Schoolhouse Rock" wrote a bill and watched it sail through the Kentucky state legislature this year in the type of feel-good story that had parents beaming.

But politics can ruin anything.

The bill would let high school students be appointed to committees that screen new school superintendents. But at the last moment, a Republican state senator pulled an old legislative trick, tacking a controversial amendment he wants passed to their widely supported bill. Then another added a contentious amendment of his own.

Now, with two more days left in the 2015 legislative session, the students who were expecting "Schoolhouse Rock" were instead being confronted with "House of Cards."

"That's the way it works," said Republican Sen. C.B. Embry, who filed the first amendment, which would force transgender students to use separate bathrooms in public schools. That amendment had previously passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

"The ball is in the House's court. If it doesn't (pass), it's not my fault, it's theirs for not giving it a hearing or allowing it to go to a conference committee," he said.

A second amendment, similarly unpopular in the House, would let students "voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints" in schools without fear of discrimination.

The students have fought back, but with little success. Three of them skipped school Wednesday — with permission — to travel to Frankfort, where they earnestly roamed the halls of the Capitol carrying signs that say "#student voice matters." They texted, tweeted and posted nonstop while setting up an impromptu news conference with reporters via Twitter.

"I took AP government a couple of years ago and definitely did not learn about this side of politics," said 16-year-old Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a junior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington.

The students are members of the Student Voice Team, organized through the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an education advocacy group. Their goal is to "collaborate with other student and adult leaders to create ways to share student perspectives on education issues."

When the Fayette County Public Schools began looking for a new superintendent last year, the students wanted a seat on the screening committee. But state law would not allow it.

So the students decided to change the law. They persuaded Democratic State Rep. Derrick Graham to sponsor the bill and traveled to Frankfort to testify before legislative committees. Two of them even stayed in Frankfort overnight during a snowstorm with their parents, a computer and no hot water because they were afraid their bill would be called and no one would be there to testify. Lawmakers ended up canceling the session the next morning.

The students still have some hope that their bill will survive through legislative maneuvering. Senators could reject the amendments. Or they could attach their bill to another bill as an amendment.

"We don't know the process very well. Of course this is all new to us," said 17-year-old Gentry Fitch, a senior at West Jessamine High School. "But we are learning right now."

Embry said he was proud of the students and wanted their bill to pass — just with his amendment.

But veteran Democratic consultant Danny Briscoe derided the maneuver as the type of cynical machinations that politicians in Kentucky routinely resort to.

"That's what happens in Frankfort to people who can't on their own get enough support for a bill. That's what they do. And it's a shame they had to pick a completely harmless bill that should pass," he said.