Understanding the importance of funding for American’s speech and debate club

Sahana Narayan

Staff Writer

     Entering high school, every student is bound to hear about their school’s speech and debate team. Either it’s at club orientations, where there are huge crowds surrounding the club’s table. Or, it’s spotting the jackets that display the members’ names that are proudly worn throughout the school. Or maybe, they have a friend in speech and debate, who passionately talks about the sport…a little too much. But, beneath the huge crowds, cool jackets, and deep passion for the sport, there is a darker and more serious side to speech and debate. And it all centers around the question of money. It’s a common occurrence in this world that no matter how much passion one has, money always gets in the way. And it works no differently with American High School’s speech and debate team. 

     First, it’s important to understand the areas of expense in a speech and debate team. In a school team, the main focus is on tournaments. Meryl Mathew (11), the vice president of American’s speech and debate club, walks through the process of registering for debate tournaments. 

     “To sign up for a tournament, there will be an entry fee. Usually for smaller tournaments it can range from $40 to $70. For the bigger tournaments, it can be anywhere from $80 to $150.” But it isn’t just the tournaments that cost money.

     Mathew says, “And then on top of that, you would obviously be traveling on your own, buying food on your own, you have to buy formal clothes, all of that. People are surprised by how much those cost.” 

     Along with the basic costs, there are additional expenses that vary between the speech and debate aspects of the club. In debate, a main expense is briefs, which can be around the $200 range. 

     Mathew explains, “Briefs are just evidence that we use in debate, and it’s sort of like pre-collected evidence that’s very important to the topic that we’re debating on. Because otherwise we would just be going out and scouring the web and articles and would have to try to find our own evidence. Briefs are very strong and used very often in debate rounds by kids from those more competitive schools.” 

     Speech competitions can similarly entail substantial costs. Saachi Baldwa (12), the president of American’s speech and debate club and the speech captain, explains that in speech, “There are certain events that you get to use props for and [those events] definitely have a different set of rules and materials that we at American are not able to provide.” Mihika Balaji (12), the treasurer of the club, adds that “kids actually need to buy scripts” for speech competitions. 

     So, how does the American speech and debate team provide for these resources? Since the team does not receive funding from the school, they have to work harder to meet the costs. “We pay for our own material through fundraising, because [the debate team] needs briefs and further material because they get taught new topics all the time,” says Baldwa.

     The club is also forced to require membership fees. Balaji comments, “Since it needs to come out of pocket, it also reduces the access of the club to many people who may not be able to afford the cost.” She says that “even with the funding that we get from the kids, it’s not enough to get a coach.” 

     This points out another key area of expense in speech and debate: professional coaching. Balaji shares, “When I went to private coaching, it could be anywhere between $30 for two hours to $60. I’ve seen coaches charge even $100 for two hours.” 

     But all three executive officers agree that no matter the cost, having a coach is greatly beneficial to any speech and debate team. 

     “[Speech and debate] isn’t just about the evidence you have, right? It’s about the way you use it. That is where good coaching really comes into play,” explains Mathew. 

     Baldwa elaborates, “Adult coaches have seen so much more than you have as a competitor. And they see it from a different point of view, right? With speech, it’s all about perspective, being able to cater to the widest audience possible, being able to resonate with anybody across the board. And I think that having an adult coach that has seen these audiences, that has watched finalists, makes a huge difference. They have connections and knowledge about, for example, which tournaments to do and how to communicate with the different tournament directors.”

     The club has been searching for a professional coach or guidance, but they have not found anyone yet. Balaji notes, “For many years now, since I was a freshman, we’ve been on the search for a coach, but no one wants to work with a district and with a school that doesn’t support them and doesn’t want them here.”

     It can become frustrating for the American High team when there are other schools in the district that are able to provide professional coaching to their speech and debate teams, putting them at a disadvantage at most competitions and events.

     Mathew recalls when a judge was giving her feedback and mentioned a technical debate term she had never heard before. “I asked, ‘oh, what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Okay, go ask your coach later. You know about it, and he’ll probably explain it to you.’ And then I told him, ‘I don’t have a coach.’ He was very taken aback.” 

     Baldwa shares similar experience, saying that she felt disadvantaged by not having the guidance of a coach, “Every time [she] stepped into speech.” She explains, “[The other competitors] have three or four adult coaches walking with them through the tournament. They have bookings for hotels right next to it while you’re commuting hours to get to the tournament. It’s an entire system.” 

     She adds, “I can tell you for sure. None of these competitors from these schools are spending the same amount of time stressing about the background work that goes into running a team because adult coaches are doing for them, so they have more time to put into the actual competing versus officers of our team who are putting so much effort into keeping it afloat for others.”

     These disadvantages that are experienced solely due to a lack of money reveal a larger problem of a wealth hierarchy in speech and debate. Balaji comments, “Speech and debate as an activity is already stratified based on wealth. People that are wealthier are able to afford better coaching. And you see this really stringent stratification in competitors as well. It’s actually kind of ridiculous, honestly, like how absolutely no one can make their way to the top because of the system that they’ve currently created.” 

     But speech and debate kids are not ones that give up easily. Baldwa praises the executive team of the club, saying, “Our captains do everything from finding materials online, to coaching students and [teaching] how to argue their cases and helping them practice against each other.” 

     Additionally, as high school students managing large amounts of money, it can be quite difficult. But Baldwa notes, “Our entire team has put so much time into learning how to refine these processes and figure out a way that works for us as high school students to manage it. So, Google forums, spreadsheets, and communication, we put all of our payment portals online this time, and we have people make the payments before they sign up for the tournament.” 

     Mathew adds, “Our club is actually doing very well in the speech and debate world especially since we are considered a small school.” 

     When asked about the future of the club, Balaji, Baldwa, and Mathew all express the same sentiments of expanding the club more. Balaji says, “I think if there was more information around speech and debate, and if it was supported by the administration, as an actual club, so many more people will be doing it for sure. I think the problem is that people just don’t know.” 

     Not only is there not a lot of information about speech and debate, people don’t always recognize the value. Mr. Sharma, the advisor for the American speech and debate club, admits that he doesn’t know a lot about the sport itself, but still recognizes the value. “It’s always great to see kids doing really cool things other than just the typical goofing off around. They are being engaged in important skills that they’re going to take with them for the rest of their lives.” 

     Mathew elaborates, “I think it’s more valuable that people realize because it’s not just talking in a room. It’s everything from talking about social issues to exploring the world-changing political viewpoint and also getting better at presentation because we all need that.” 

     She adds, “I definitely think speech and debate is worth the investment.”

“It’s an entire system. And just like any system for any competition, money matters, right? Yeah, money always matters,” says Baldwa (12).

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