Calling the Shots

Adam’s Note: This is an unpublished article I wrote about student involvement in district and state school boards in Washington. Let me know if your organization is interested in publishing it by emailing adam@commonaction.org

In the spring of 2011 a student-led campaign began working with the state’s Legislative Youth Advisory Council to lower the voting age for school board elections to 14. This campaign, which would give students a substantial say in education policy-making, is unique across the United States, and after 10 years of watching these trends internationally, I believe it may be the only proposal of its kind anywhere.

Answering the question of how students can be effectively involved in district and state decision-making is one that has been grappled with by educators, administrators, and policy-makers across the country for decades. Over the last decade, as part of my work through SoundOut, I have provided technical assistance and training to districts nationwide that are interested in systematically engaging students in education decision-making. I have researched more than 40 years of involving students in school boards, and I continue to follow national trends carefully. It is exciting to report that indeed, the practice of involving students in school decision-making is spreading, and even though it’s not widespread yet, there have been important strides made.

There are several types of practices that involve students in school decision-making on the district and state levels. The lowest bar is simply and routinely asking students what they think about school board policy-making issues. This can be a formal process mandated through policy, conducted through online surveys or in-person student forums. Another practice is to require regular student attendance at school board meetings. Generally viewed as non-meaningful forms of involvement, neither of these practices require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that of “informant”.

Higher up the ladder is the practice of having student advisory boards that inform regular school board decision-making. This is the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. BSAC, which is coordinated by the administered by the district office in partnership with a nonprofit called Youth on Board, offers student perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their respective schools about relevant citywide school issues. In addition to personal skill development and knowledge building activities for their 20-plus members, BSAC students have strongly influenced district policy-making about cell phone usage, truancy, and reducing the dropout rate. They also have regular dialogues with the district superintendent and school board members.

The Denver (CO) Student Board of Education is a group of 30 students who represent the15 high schools in the city. They are charged to serve as leaders in their schools and represent all students at the district level. Students create projects that affect their local schools and report back on them to the district. They have also created a curriculum that is used in several high school leadership classes. However, these students have to ask permission to speak to their regular board, and that does not happen frequently. Closer to home, the Portland (OR) Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council meets with district administrators and provides feedback and ideas for issues facing students and schools in their district.

One of the main issues in student involvement in boards of education is whether students are legally allowed to sit on boards, and if they are allowed, whether they have a full vote akin to their adult peers. A 2002 study posted on the SoundOut website identifies laws regarding student involvement on state and local school boards in 39 states out of 50 states across the U.S. The results vary: As many as 16 states have laws allowing students to sit on school boards at the state level, with no vote. 20 states allow the same at the district level. Six states disallow either entirely, while seven allow full student voting on the state and district levels.

Despite being allowed otherwise in those seven states, only California and Maryland actually have full-voting members on their state boards of education. Both of those states have highly influential student organizations that openly lobby for student voice. The California Association of Student Councils, founded in 1947, proudly proclaims that all their programs are student-led. One of their most powerful activities is the Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education, or SABLE. Each February SABLE convenes in the state capital to set education priorities and share them with key decision-makers. They have a direct audience with the Senate Education Committee, and their influence helped form a position for a full-voting student member of the California State Board of Education, whose position was created in 1969. They gained full voting rights in 1983, including closed sessions. The Maryland Association of Student Councils has similar impact in their state, with a student member serving in a regularly elected position annually.

Our state’s law regarding membership qualifications for directors of school boards, RCW 28A.343.340, does not specify whether students in Washington can join district and state school boards. In 2009, a staff member with the Washington State School Directors’ Association reported to me that as few as 20 out of our state’s 195 school districts included formal student representation. Currently, two student representatives from the Washington Association of Student Councils serve two-year terms with the state board of education.

There is an inherent dilemma in all these forms of student involvement, though. While an extremely limited number of students have the opportunity to share their voices with adult decision-makers in the system, this type of “convenient student voice” is generally conducted at the adults’ convenience and with their approval. In a growing number of states, the status quo of being excluded does not suit students themselves anymore. Currently, a disjointed but growing movement is seeking to increase the authority of students in school policy-making and decisions. In Maryland, where students already have a role on the state board of education and in many district boards, in counties across the state there are active campaigns to increase the effect of student voice, with students calling for a full and regular vote in education policy-making. There is even an instance in Maryland where an 18-year-old named Edward Burroughs was elected to his local school board after running an effective campaign. According to a local newspaper, he is rated one of the county’s most effective school board members by voters.

These examples allude to a process of what I refer to as engagement typification, where the roles of students are repositioned throughout the education system to allow Meaningful Student Involvement to become the standard treatment for all students, rather than something that is exceptional. Consistently positioning students as in special positions doesn’t allow adults, including educators, administrators, or parents, to integrate students throughout the regular operations of the educational system. While seeing their peers as school board members is enticing to a number of students, most are disallowed them from seeing themselves as regular and full members of the leadership and ownership of education, or as trustees for their own well-being. That is what differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from other attempts at student engagement and student voice: Positioning students as full owners of what they learn. Giving students the right to vote in school board elections is a step in the right direction; the next question is whether any district in Washington is ready to go to the next level.

About the author: Adam Fletcher is the president of CommonAction Consulting, a firm working nationally from Olympia that supports youth engagement throughout communities. Learn more at www.commonaction.com or their program website for schools, www.soundout.org.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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