When Michael White heard that his school in New Hope, Minnesota, was about to lose staff members and programs to district budget cuts, the 17-year-old senior organized a group of students to fight back.
Calling themselves Concerned Advocates for Reforming Education, or CARE, the students at Robbinsdale Cooper High pulled together about 300 other young supporters for a March rally at the state capitol. They urged lawmakers to direct some of the state’s $2 billion budget surplus to education.
While Michael awaits the outcome of the group’s efforts, he is philosophical about the protest’s effectiveness. “If it doesn’t work, we’re no worse off than before,” he says. “We can’t pass bills ourselves, but we can bring attention to problems.”
Michael is one of many students who are learning about politics by becoming active in the legislative process as lobbyists. In the past, student activism typically was the domain of a handful of elected student-council leaders, but that has changed, according to Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, executive director of Activism 2000, a Rockville, Maryland-based group that acts as a national clearinghouse for young people involved in politics. More and more, it is everyday students angered by “zero tolerance” policies or dress codes who are speaking out, she says. They have helped get students voting seats on local and state school boards and pushed legislation on such issues as safe schools and financial aid for college.
Students in two government classes at Apollo High in Glendale, Arizona, recently pressed state lawmakers to support the use of lottery money for college scholarships. The students are following the proposal as a part of a project to help them understand the political process.
“Most students,” Lesko says, “are motivated primarily because they’re fired up and want to do something.”
And it isn’t just high schoolers. In Hawaii, a group of elementary students recently lobbied against a proposal that would have increased class sizes. For most young students, though, the galvanizing issues are less momentous. Take the 4th graders in Sharon Panik’s class at Kruse Elementary in Fort Collins, Colorado. They found the official state song unappealing, so they launched a campaign to change it. The class lobbied local legislators and picked up state Representative Bob Bacon, a Democrat and retired teacher, as a sponsor.
Unbeknown to them, students at another Colorado school were doing the same thing—only they were pushing a different song. When Bacon told the students he wouldn’t take up their cause unless the two schools agreed on a song, the 4th graders got a lesson in the school of hard knocks: The other school chose not to discuss a compromise. Though the outcome was disappointing, the lobbying effort was still a good experience for the kids. “The students know far more about their state,” Panik explains.
A few states teach their students to be politically active. In Maryland, the state education department has a school- and community-outreach office that works to interest students in school reform. Each year since 1981, the office has held a session to teach up to 800 students how to research legislation. Students also attend workshops on how to lobby and create a political platform. “It is critical to get kids connected to what goes on in schools,” says Sue Travetto, a former executive director of the Maryland Association of Student Councils.
The program stands out from leadership initiatives in most other states because it is sponsored by the state department of education, which also subsidizes a portion of its annual budget.
Support for the program has grown over the years, according to Travetto. At first, many people argued that students were too young to be involved in politics. But not anymore. Now, she says, other states “have taken our materials to replicate what we’re doing.”
Lesko of Activism 2000 scoffs at the notion that elementary and secondary students are too young to be effective political players. In fact, her group provides politically minded students with strategic advice and links them to others working on similar projects. “When young people have done their homework, they have an ability to influence,” she says. “Legislators see the passion and commitment of these young citizens, and they don’t want to quash their spirit.”
—Adrienne D. Coles