Conn. Student Turns Lobbyist for Board Seat

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Connecticut high school student Ben Smilowitz wants to give students in his state a voice in state education policy. So the 16-year-old from West Hartford has written a bill to create a student seat on the state board of education.

"Students are the ones affected by the policies created by the state board of education," he said. "Students should help make decisions."

The state has a student advisory council, of which Mr. Smilowitz is a member. But that is not enough for the politically savvy junior at Hall High School, a public school in his hometown. "We give recommendations, but how far do those recommendations go?" he said in an interview last week.

Ben Smilowitz

The bill drafted by Mr. Smilowitz is based on a similar law that helped to create a student seat on the Massachusetts state school board in 1975. The new bill would add two seats to Connecticut's nine-member board to keep an odd number of members on the panel. Ideally, said Mr. Smilowitz, both seats would belong to students, who would be appointed by the governor and receive voting privileges.

According to the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va., 10 states and the District of Columbia already have student members on their state boards. The states are: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Of these states, four allow students to vote. If Mr. Smilowitz succeeds in his unusual role of high school student-lobbyist, Connecticut could join the list next year.

"This is the first time I've seen a student actually campaigning for a seat on a state board," said David Kysilko, the director of publications for NASBE. Most state board members are enthusiastic about having students on the panels because they play an active role, Mr. Kysilko said.

Not a Tough Sell

Mr. Smilowitz, along with members of the International Student Activism Alliance, a group he started a year ago, enlisted the help of Rep. Brian E. Mattiello, a Republican from Torrington, in their effort.

"I needed no convincing as to the value of student participation at this level," Rep. Mattiello said. However, some related issues--including voting rights--raised concerns for students and Rep. Mattiello alike.

"We're not going to settle for anything less than voting rights," Mr. Smilowitz said. "It doesn't make sense to me having a student on the board without it."

Rep. Mattiello said he wants student members to enjoy full participation, but he also believes there may need to be conditions for a student appointment where voting is concerned. Students may be allowed to vote on policy, but not on legal and personnel issues, he said.

The idea of having a student on the state board has not been a hard sell for Mr. Smilowitz.

Craig Toensing, the chairman of the Connecticut board, said he was open to considering a student appointment. "I'm not predisposed to say no," Mr. Toensing said last week.

Dean Pagani, a spokesman for Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, also said the governor doesn't see anything wrong in having a student board member, although he would like to hear more about the possible impact.

"I can't think of any reason to be against it," Mr. Pagani said.

When Connecticut convenes its next legislative session in February, Mr. Mattiello wants to make getting a student board member a top priority. The lawmaker said his initial focus will be winning the attention of the House education committee, since only committees--not individual legislators--may introduce bills that are not of a fiscal nature during even years.

The strategy will be to find answers to questions that will inevitably be raised about a student member. "If we don't resolve the authority issues that people will have questions about, they may easily decide that it needs more time," Mr. Mattiello added.

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