More than a year before he joined the University of Virginia’s tradition of student self-governance, first-year Zaakir Tameez was already working to give his fellow students a greater voice.
Tameez is the founder of the Houston Independent School District Student Congress and has spent the last year advocating for better education in his home state. This month, he took his cause all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
“There are 44 high schools in [the Houston Independent School District] and once we set up the Student Congress, we had students from everywhere,” he said. “We all came together, shared stories, talked about different issues, and we all noticed these big discrepancies.”
Although he was fortunate to attend a magnet high school, Tameez knew limited funding prevented many other Houston students from enjoying the kind of extracurricular and expanded instructional opportunities available to him.
In fact, Texas school officials contend that the average learning conditions are so dismal that 600 school districts are suing the state for underfunding public education in violation of its own constitution. As the case continued to work its way through the court system, the Student Congress decided to lobby the legislature directly to increase funding and improve educational opportunity.
Some lawmakers were receptive to the students when they brought their cause to Austin, but many expressed a desire to wait for the resolution of the court case before taking any action.
“Our thought was, ‘Well this is our education. We can’t just wait,’” Tameez said.
When the finance proposal they were advocating failed, they, too, turned to the courts. Together with 10 other Student Congress members, Tameez decided to write and submit to the Texas Supreme Court an amicus brief in support of the local school districts suing the state.
“We looked at the court documents that different people had already submitted and they all talked about the students like nameless, faceless numbers,” Tameez said. “For the court, our brief is putting a human face on the problem.”
After comparing notes on their own experiences and interviewing students and teachers across Houston, the Congress members put together a 35-page brief detailing the regular hardships of underfunded schools.
Tameez and his fellow student, Amy Fan, were the primary authors, purposely eschewing the assistance of outside legal advisers so that the brief would be written in a genuine student voice.
“It was important to do that to bring the court back to the idea that these are real teenagers,” Tameez said.
Inside the brief, they broke down their concern into four main areas: decreasing class size, improving teacher quality, enhancing enrichment programs and innovating college and career readiness.
The students highlighted one example school that encompassed all the hurdles facing the Texas education system: Robert E. Lee High School in southwest Houston.
One-third of Lee’s approximately 1,400 students are English language learners and nearly 100 percent are economically disadvantaged. The brief describes how the school’s principal, Jonathan Trinh, has had to face difficult economic decisions just to ensure his students can learn the basics:
In order to provide students extra assistance in English, Principal Trinh has had to cut language, art and extracurricular programs at Lee. The school only offers Spanish because a large proportion of their students can test out, meaning he can hire fewer teachers. The principal would love to offer Mandarin, Hindi or French, but there simply isn’t enough money for these languages, increasingly important in the 21st century economy to be part of the curriculum. Lee doesn’t have a band, orchestra or any sort of other musical outlet for students.
The Student Congress members argue that slashing enrichment programs and elective classes in order to pay for the bare minimum can dangerously lower a teenager’s motivation to go to school.
Tameez pointed to another story in the brief, about a young Houston student who had a difficult home life and always struggled in his classes at school. The young man’s whole outlook changed when he joined the orchestra. Suddenly he had something that made him want to come to school. As he excelled in orchestra, his grades in other classes started to improve, too.
“That story was really inspiring for me because it shows a different way of thinking. It shows real people and how they think about learning,” Tameez said.
To improve opportunities for students, the brief argues that greater attention needs to be paid to teacher hiring practices. Texas teachers’ salaries have consistently been among the nation’s lowest, and students question the increasingly popular practice of alternative certification, a process that allows college graduates with no formal education training to be hired and earn their teaching certificate on the job.
“We need well-trained teachers,” Tameez said. “If, for example, your students are in poverty, then as a teacher you need to be equipped to help them deal with that and still learn. You have to know that many of your students may not have the supplies or support they need for homework projects.”
Every issue in the brief boils down to a lack of funding, and Tameez hopes that adding student voices into the mix will eventually restore – with interest – nearly $5 billion the state legislature cut from education in 2011.
“Our ideal outcome is for the Supreme Court to rule that the current funding system in Texas is unconstitutional because it doesn’t give kids an adequate education. Then they would send it back to the legislature and we would go and lobby them to make it better,” he said.
The court has set no official deadline for its decision yet, but most involved in the trial expect to hear a ruling some time in early 2016.
While he waits for the decision, Tameez is looking forward to getting involved at U.Va. He recently joined the Student Council and plans to study economics in the College of Arts & Sciences. Unsurprisingly, he has his sights set on law school after graduation.
Tameez is thrilled with the amount of national attention the amicus brief has brought to the education problem in Texas. He advises other students to stand up and advocate for themselves.
“If you’re passionate about something, just do it,” he said. “Go for it and the world will come to your aid.”