#ActiveAdvocacy: Launching a Coalition

February 18, 2016

By Karissa Anderson and Faith Sandler
Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis

Toward the close of Missouri’s 2015 legislative session, a group of Education Policy Interns from The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis were in a van on the way to Missouri’s state capitol. In discussion to prepare for testimony before the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, intern Amber Overton raised questions about Missouri’s merit-based aid program, Bright Flight. In order for students be eligible for Bright Flight they must score a 31 or above on the ACT – although the state average is 21.5. In her testimony, Amber asked that the committee take a look into the distribution of the scholarship and at the very least see that the scholarship be distributed more equitably, to students from each high school in Missouri. Amber was met with disinterest and skepticism.  That inspired her, and her colleagues, to develop a line of inquiry fortified with data. 

A subsequent formal data request presented to the Missouri Department of Higher Education delivered a wealth of information to analyze. Everything that the interns predicted about this scholarship proved true. Many of Missouri’s students were being left behind by use of a single measure (ACT score) and a statewide competition. Less than 2% of the scholarship recipients were black students and only 11% of the recipients were from rural school districts, both data points revealing key disparities. Many of the students receiving the award attended wealthy private and public high schools and a remarkably high concentration of recipients are from St. Louis and Kansas City. (Learn more here.) Essentially, the state is spending millions of dollars on scholarships for students that do not need financial support and has been doing so for thirty years. 

In order to make this information known to legislators, Education Policy Interns recruited students from 11 campuses across the state to help up deliver this information, crafted tweets and hashtags, and created customized reports for legislators.

Active Advocacy Coalition gathering in Jefferson City, Missouri. Senior Policy Intern Amber Overton (on left, seated in front row, white scarf) and Manager of Advocacy and Policy Research Karissa Anderson (on far right, first row standing) led the release of data analysis on equity issues in the state’s merit-based scholarship program. 

On February 3rd, 2016, 30 students, five interns, and 10 nonprofit allies traveled to the state capitol with a white paper, fact sheet, and district level reports for each and every legislator in Missouri. The reports outlined the number of Bright Flight recipients graduating from each high school in each district.  College students from 11 campuses across Missouri joined the effort, launching The Active Advocacy Coalition of St. Louis Graduates, a state-wide coalition of students advocating for college access and affordability. Students from public and private universities from as far as 3 hours away, participated in issue briefing, discussed their perspectives with media, and worked in teams to visit legislators. They requested that Missouri divest from this merit-based program and funnel those dollars towards Missouri’s need-based program, or at the very least, restructure Bright Flight so that those dollars only go to students that need them. 

At the time of the delivery, the information was met with surprise and caution by legislators.  It was not clear if the themes revealed by the data were news, or whether the inequitable outcomes were largely a heretofore privately held secret.  In the days following the data release, a media storm ensued.  At last count, some 20 media outlets across the state ran features on the issue. Media headlines ranged from “Bright Flight scholarship loses some of its shimmer in Missouri” to “Coalition challenges distribution of Bright Flight scholarships, but some critics say group misses the mark” to headlines that inferred the coalition wielded some power, such as “Bright Flight Threatened”.  One site that serves as a digest of Missouri political news ran a title: “Minority Students say Bright Flight bar – scoring 31 on the ACT – is too tough for them to achieve”. Comments bashing low-income students, encouraging them to use their “boot-straps” and just score better on the test were posted in response to news items. Most of the criticism served to insult without knowing or taking into account the context in which many low-income students, urban and rural, live. 

While the response from the legislature and some media outlets did not reveal a sudden desire for change, the release of this information was successful in raising awareness, identifying interests, and calling into question the use of public funds. This first coalition endeavor was an effective and authentically student organized body of analysis and resulting advocacy.  Students organized around an issue that affects them, producing and delivering over 150 reports. The work is not over but the facts are out there now. There’s no way to dispute the evidence, though some may differ on its importance. The Coalition will continue to look into Missouri’s scholarship programs with an eye towards equity as well as other issues that affect access and affordability. Missouri may just have to adjust to students speaking truth, backed by facts, and engaging in democratic processes.

For those considering creating student-lead advocacy programs, a few considerations can be shared from the Show-Me State.  First, since most NCAN members work with low-income and first generation students, it’s critical to consider how time and effort will be compensated.  These are not simply storytellers or “poster children.”  The Foundation’s Education Policy Interns are contracted and paid stipends at the equivalent of $20.00-$25.00 per hour, under set timetables for deliverables.  Coalition members making appearances for testimony or legislative visits receive a $100 honorarium to cover their expenses. Advocacy work requires clear parameters and consistent training, and students deserve the chance to learn and develop in the process.  They are experts in their own experiences, but require exposure to the tools of legislative and academic research, writing, and argumentation.  When they enter a room ready to speak, confident in their subject matter, and clear in their position, students will inevitably attract attention and respect for their authentic voice and willingness to engage.  Finally, among the most important considerations is the fact that host organizations working with students in advocacy roles will learn much about themselves, their programs, and their assumptions in the process.  This is rich and exciting work, giving nonprofits a chance to be partners with students in the learning process from the start.

Grants from Deaconess Foundation and Incarnate Word Foundation support the research work of the Education Policy Interns of The Scholarship Foundation.  A three-year grant from TG Philanthropy is funding the expansion of student-led advocacy to a statewide (and eventually bi-state) coalition of students.

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