Student voices on the State Board of Education silenced by political infighting

Student voices on the State Board of Education silenced by political infighting

- in Education, Top Story
Greear Webb (left) and Myles Cyrus (right) pose for a picture during the April State Board of Education meeting. (Photo by Greg Childress)

Greear Webb and Myles Cyrus would have made great student advisers to the State Board of Education (SBE).

The high school seniors have impeccable academic credentials, are well spoken and can command a room like seasoned trial lawyers.

But both are heading to college in the fall, so neither will get the chance to serve as advisers on the board that sets state policy for more than 1.5 million North Carolina public school students.

The board hasn’t had a student representative at the table since 2016. The program was suspended amid the well-publicized, two-year long power struggle between the board and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

At the state board’s April meeting, Webb, a student at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, urged it to bring back the program, which dates to at least 1999.

If we are in the room where the decisions are made, we can clearly and intentionally help you to structure our education in the most effective and successful way possible,” said Webb.

Webb, a recipient of the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship who is headed to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall, said it’s critical that students play a role in crafting state education policy.

Students are those who stand to gain or lose from changes that take place in meetings like this, so students should have a seat at the table,” Webb said.

A missing voice

The state board traditionally receives policy input from student advisers in April, but because there aren’t any, Webb and Cyrus were invited to discuss their experiences in North Carolina’s public schools.

It [student voices] was an incredibly important voice that sat at this table, just like the voices of our teachers, school board members and superintendents, and really look forward to a time when we will have those two people back at this table to give us that input every month,” said State Board of Education member Patricia Willoughby.

Cyrus, a student at Fike High School in Wilson, encouraged the board to also create a student advisory council.

In addition to student advisers, Cyrus said there’s a need for a “collective and representative group from across the state that meets with the board periodically to discuss certain policies and how they’re implemented and what their impact is and how students are changed because of that policy.”

Cyrus is the recipient of the Joseph G. Gordon Scholarship and will attend Wake Forest University in the fall.

Education Dive, an online publication, reported this month that at least 20 states and U.S. territories have some form of student representation on their state boards of education and at least seven state boards have student advisory councils.

Legal wrangling changed the game

Until 2016, North Carolina law authorized the governor to appointment two high school students to serve as advisers to the state board.

The Republican-led General Assembly handed the authority to the state superintendent as part of a power grab that led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to Johnson.

Johnson said he couldn’t appoint students to the board until after the legal questions were answered around HB 17.

That entire law was put on hold for a year and a half because of lawsuits, so nobody could appoint a student adviser,” he said. “When the court proceedings were finally finished in summer of 2018, that is when it took the restraining order off of that law and I had the ability to appoint a student adviser.”

The relationship between Johnson and the state board deteriorated as the lawsuit worked its way through the courts.

Johnson said he has been reluctant to bring students into an environment where the adults around the table weren’t getting along.

We had an embarrassing state board meeting in September of last year,” Johnson said. “I have had multiple people come up to me and say that it was not our finest moment and it truly wasn’t.”

Johnson said he believes board and superintendent relations have improved.

I just wanted to make sure our board meetings were not going to devolve into what happened in September,” Johnson said. “I feel confident that’s not going to happen so, now with the end of the school year coming up, I think we can start that process for next school year.”

Under the law, the Superintendent of Public Instruction is authorized to stagger the appointments of two student advisers so that a “high school junior is serving in the first year of a two-year term and a high school senior is serving in the second year of a two-year term simultaneously.”

The appointment of a high school junior is to be made beginning June 15 of each year.

Responding to Johnson’s remarks, SBE member Wayne McDevitt said Webb assured the board that students are capable of participating in tough discussions.

I’m not sure I see the relationship between a particular meeting and appointing two student advisers,” McDevitt said. “What is refreshing is to hear [from student] is that we’re okay participating in tough discussions, so I think it’s okay.”

Dedicated participants

McDevitt recalled the dedication of a student adviser who took a bus from Charlotte each month to attend state board meetings.

He had to catch a ride to the bus station,” McDevitt said.

And he reminded his colleagues that his son, Nicholas McDevitt, now the head basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University, also served as a student adviser.

I recall him advising this board on the ABCs [of Public Education] and my boss, Governor [Jim] Hunt at the time, was one of the architects of that and my son’s comments to this board did not align with my boss’, but it was okay.”

Board member James Ford said students are right to want a voice in policy decisions that impact their lives.

What I hear is a constant refrain of students letting us know that despite our best intentions, if we’re not being deliberate about incorporating students voice in an authentic way, and not just to either offer a stamp of approval or denial, but really sharing power in the decision-making process, we’re essentially setting ourselves up for trouble because you are our clients, you are the beneficiaries or, in the case of a bad decision, those who suffer,” Ford said.

Walter Herring of Greenville was a senior at James Kenan High School in 1999 when he was named one of two student advisers to the board.

Leslie Jimison, a junior at Page High School in Guilford County was the other adviser, in what Herring believes was the first year students were appointed.

Herring said students should have a seat at the table to influence decisions that impact them.

That seems like plain common sense,” Herring said. “There’s nothing like a ground-level view.”