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Rally on Capitol steps a lesson for Missouri students

February 16, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Vernieca Kellum, of West Plains, Mo., doesn't know what the Foundation Formula is. She doesn't know the mathematical intricacies of Missouri's education funding. She said she doesn't follow state politics.

But Kellum, an eighth grader at West Plains Middle School, was drawn to Monday's "Kids First" rally because she said she knows exactly what "fully funding" means.

And to her, it's more than a slogan on a placard or a financial technicality. It means her district doesn't lose a building.

"I want to have a full chance at an education," she said.

Though unschooled in the detailed art of school finance -- many didn't know what the Foundation Formula was, or how much money was being thrown around -- the roughly 2,000 young protesters chanting "Save our Schools!" on the steps of Missouri's Captiol were quite clear on what was at stake: their educations.

The political impact of the event -- designed to showcase student and faculty opposition to the bitter partisan battle over public school funding in Missouri government -- is unclear. But what was clear were the raw emotions of students who said they simply wanted supplies in the classroom.

De'von Douglass, a sophomore at University City High School in St. Louis, said she came to the rally out of frustration with the political process. She wore a plackard, saying in bold blue lettering, "Put the Students First!"

"I am happy to give up a day of school to let government know we won't stand for it," Douglass said. "Schools may not be able to supply all of our needs. A high school student may have to settle for less."

Fifth-grader Martha Burton, and her younger brother Will, both came from Robberson Elemenatry School in Springfield, Mo. They had their own take on school funding -- and the politicans who spend hours debating it.

"It's crazy, some of the things they say," said Martha. Both Burtons are enrolled in a gifted education program. Those are the types of programs state-wide that could be affected by funding cuts.

Also from southwest Missouri came Tim Brinkley, a student teacher from Evangel University. He works at Disney Elementary School in Springfield.

And though he has yet to take complete control over a classroom, he said, he acutely feels the funding debate raging in the House and Senate.

For Brinkley, the politics of education has been an eye-opening experience.

"I've always loved kids," he said. "And you figure that teaching is more than just kids, but ..." his voice trailed off. "I've learned a lot. You've got to fight."

Before attending to some students begging for his attention, Brinkley adds a final observation.

"We remember why we want to teach," Brinkley said about himself and several of his colleagues chanting nearby. "This (protest) is about our core values."

Johannes -- an exchange student from Germany who did not want to give his last name -- is a senior at Oak Park High School near Kansas City. He said he came to the rally because he thought it would help bring attention to the issue.

"Germany has problems too," he said.

And though the students had the day off -- it was President's Day, after all -- several teachers hoped that the rally itself would be a day's lesson about democracy in action.

"Even this is educational," Brinkley said.