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Georgia students lobby for equity in school funding

Georgia Youth Justice Coalition

Students from across Georgia participated in a “lobby day” with Georgia Youth Justice Coalition on Feb. 16. The organizers and lobbyists focused on the creation of an “opportunity weight” to help low-income students in Georgia schools.

ATLANTA — Francesca Ruhe and Mason Goodwin are ready to seize the power of young people, and they want to use it to bring equity to public school funding.

The two are registered lobbyists for their statewide organization, Georgia Youth Justice Coalition.

The organization has members from ages 14-22 focused on education justice in communities across Georgia. The nonprofit has grassroots and legislative divisions, all led by students and young people.

On Feb. 16, Ruhe and Goodwin sat outside the Georgia Capitol for a quick break from one of their legislative initiatives. The pair are part of a lobby day, put on in partnership with organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Deep Institute in Savannah.

Goodwin said the groups created a coalition called Fund Georgia’s Future, focused on “fair and full funding” for schools across the state.

The organizers are grateful for the help from their well-known partner organizations, but their focus is on what young people can bring to legislator’s offices.

“Legislators don’t expect some very highly motivated … young people who are demanding change,” Ruhe said. “We just kind of seize that power.”

At 18 years old, Francesca Ruhe lobbies in between classes at Georgia State University. For the Feb. 16 lobby day, she wore business attire — except for the bright yellow Converses, covered in pictures of Woodstock from the Peanuts cartoons.

Mason Goodwin, 20, is a student at Georgia State University.

They make up a fraction of Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, which has a “student base of hundreds” according to Ruhe. At the lobby day, their nonprofit brought about 25 students to the Capitol.

“There’s an infinite number of us, and we all have the same gripes with the public education system,” Ruhe said.

At the lobby day, the coalition of students and adults focused on an “opportunity weight,” which would add funding to schools that serve students in poverty.

“It could help make up the difference (in funding) between the richer schools in the North Metro Atlanta area and the South Metro area,” Ruhe said.

The opportunity weight is part of Georgia House Bill 3, called the “Support for Students Living in Poverty Act” introduced in January.

Georgia is one of only six states with a school funding formula that does not provide additional funds to schools with low-income students. The state does provide equalization grants through the “Quality Basic Education Act,” which was passed in 1985. The grants focus on filling funding gaps for poor and rural areas.

Goodwin and Ruhe said their experiences in Georgia schools are fundamental to their legislative work, especially when it comes to education funding.

Ruhe said she saw educational disparity for the first time in middle school. In sixth grade she joined an organization called Page Turners, aimed at bringing books to underserved schools across Metro Atlanta.

As a volunteer, Ruhe traveled around Atlanta and interviewed authors in front of groups of kids.

“It was incredible, the disparities,” Ruhe said. “In my own personal upbringing, which I consider to be pretty privileged I had all the resources I needed to be a fluent reader.”

At an early age, Ruhe saw the impacts of economic disparity.

Mason Goodwin had a different experience growing up but a similar takeaway. He was one of the “lower income, single-parent households kids” in Atlanta public schools.

Goodwin started in the general classes, where he was the only White student. In his junior year, Goodwin got pushed into honors classes. The classrooms were full of other White students.

“You start asking the kids and they’re like ‘Yeah, I’m getting tutors for my AP classes,’” Goodwin said. “You realize they have the resources to actually push through school.”

Goodwin said that “waking moment” pushed him into activism.

Ruhe and Goodwin said the Georgia Youth Justice coalition has been involved in major efforts, from on-the-ground work to stop book bans in Forsyth County to conversations about the school to prison pipeline in Gwinnett County.

“The beauty of the coalition is that we’re made up of students, and students always have a million different issues to contend with,” Ruhe said.

Even if the students don’t win every fight, the young organizers are optimistic.

“Just being here is a huge win,” Ruhe said.

Reach Delaney Tarr at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @delaneytarr.