In the final months of her tenure on the Anne Arundel, Md., board of education, Josie Urrea doubled down on her efforts to dismantle the student ranking system she says promotes too much competition and stress among students.
Urrea’s hard-charging approach on a tough topic belies the fact that she is just 18 years old and one of only a handful of U.S. youths who hold full or near-full voting rights on their school board while also attending public school. (She may also be the very first student ever to serve as the vice president of one.)
It’s a position that has taught her any number of civics lessons, including this: Sometimes, major policy shifts can be made only through a series of compromises.
Josie’s original proposal would have done away with the valedictorian and salutatorian honors altogether. A modified version she drafted after some pointed criticism in public comments preserves those honors, but puts more emphasis on selecting students who also exemplify service, leadership, and character.
“In the real world, you have to be well rounded, not just the smartest,” Urrea said.
Anne Arundel and its nearby neighbor, Montgomery County, Md., are both on a short list of districts that have a student board member imbued with near-equal voting clout as adult members—and a phenomenon that provides an unsettling contrast to the current interest in K-12 civics education.
More states and districts are considering or passing legislation aimed at boosting students’ knowledge of civics and engagement in civic problem-solving; a national civics education coalition counts more than 80 bills introduced in state legislatures in the 2018-19 session. The irony is that those channels are often lacking within the major governance structure in K-12 education: school boards.
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.
To better understand the role of education in the current crisis, Education Week consulted experts, visited classrooms, and conducted surveys. This article is part of that ongoing effort. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the months ahead.
For Urrea, who graduated in late May and leaves her position June 30, board service embodied what she’d been told over and over in her government and social science classes.
“School systems constantly tell students that you should care about your community and be well versed in topics and you should want to make a difference,” she said. “I think that means I can take what I see in my own classroom and actually make a difference.”
A Scattered Landscape
There is no database detailing how many of the nation’s thousands of districts grant student board members voting rights. But the bits and pieces of available information suggest it’s rare. Most of the time, student board members serve in an advisory-only capacity. Occasionally, student members have their votes recorded, but not counted, towards the outcome.
That lack of student representation is striking, especially at a time of resurgent youth activism. In 2018, student activism prompted perhaps the first substantive changes to gun control laws in nearly a decade; internationally, students appear poised to assert similar pressure on climate change policy.
Given that students are the end users of the K-12 education system, why do they tend to be so underrepresented on its key governing board?
The most commonly cited reason is that students lack the maturity and time to serve as voting members, let alone to sort through budget line items, acrimonious public comments, and an endless supply of education buzzwords.
But for proponents of the idea like Adam Fletcher, the founder of SoundOut, a youth-engagement program that keeps tabs on student board service, those arguments are summed up by a single word: adultism. “Some adults talk to me about the ‘inmates running the asylum,’” he said. “It’s this fear, this concern that kids don’t know what’s best for themselves, and as adults we have the best experience and knowledge.”
There is a long legacy behind that thinking dating back to early child-development theories—many now debunked—as well as historical precedent. “There are generations of parents and teachers going all the way back who incapacitated kids as a routine practice,” Fletcher said, noting that the practice began with the intention of protecting children, but over time has led to a kind of learned helplessness: “It’s part of the post-Victorian idea of getting kids out of the mines, fields, and factories.”
It’s probably no coincidence that state laws on student board service seem to track with periods in which students were more vocal about claiming their right to representation. Both Maryland’s and California’s laws date to the late 1960s and 1970s—exactly contemporary with the last major wave of student activism.
Where schools are concerned, though, students are best placed to know what the impact of board decisions will be, said Ananya Tadikonda, the outgoing student board member for Montgomery County, who graduated June 7.
“We are the one member of the board that feels the direct impact of change, of every program, and every policy,” Tadikonda said.
To serve in Anne Arundel and Montgomery County, interested students have to apply and go through a candidate-vetting process. In Anne Arundel, under an electoral-college-like system, student representatives from each secondary school select the board member, while in Montgomery County, finalists are voted on by the secondary student body at large.
It’s that process that proponents of student voice efforts sometimes worry about, especially since many districts with student representatives set minimum qualifications or GPAs that can shut out groups.
“The only downside I see is the limited number of students that would fill these seats and the danger of an election being a popularity contest, or not producing winners representative of the demographics of the student body,” said Shawn Healy, who oversees work on civic education and engagement at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
Urrea acknowledges that’s traditionally been a problem. She’s worked to broaden the decisionmaking by establishing a diverse group of students from different high schools to help advise her. Indeed, once elected, student board members have to be diligent in representing their constituencies just as their adult colleagues do: They conduct regular school visits and submit to interviews with school newspapers.
Both young women say they’ve been treated as equals by their colleagues, perhaps because the student board position is well established in their districts. And Urrea’s selection as the first student vice president wasn’t just because an influx of new board members last year made her a good candidate, but also because she’d distinguished herself as the head of the board’s policy committee, said the president of the Anne Arundel board, Terry Gilleland Jr.
“She demonstrated that judgment, skill, and collaborative process, so that if we blindly took away everyone’s age, she was on par,” he said.
Urrea and Tadikonda say the position comes with challenges, such as missing class or staying late to attend board meetings. And because their board terms are limited to a year, some institutional memory can get lost as a new student prepares to step up.
“By the time you’re really getting into the swing of things and know you’re really comfortable being on the board and doing the work, you’re passing on the baton to the next person,” Tadikonda said.
On one thing, though, they are certain: having an equal or near-equal vote is an important sign to students that their input isn’t just nice to have, but essential to good decisionmaking.
“When you really only have an opinion vote, it really tells a student that their educational experience is less valued than that of people who were in class 30 years ago,” Urrea said.
Is board service a promising way of getting kids more actively engaged in their schools, and in civic institutions overall? The generally close-knit group of civics education advocates disagree on this point.
Solicia Lopez is the director of student voice and leadership for the Denver district, including its marquee program, the Student Board of Education. In it, students from each high school develop and sometimes enact proposals to improve school life. But Lopez isn’t convinced that creating a voting student board position in the district would necessarily improve civic learning much on its own. It could feel like tokenism to students if badly implemented, she said.
“I go back and forth on this,” she said. “I worry it lets adults off the hook for thinking about what it really means to have student voice at the table.”
Denver’s current youth-voice programs require students to learn the ins and outs of effective civic work—how to organize, advocate, and present ideas effectively, and a voting student board position would need to be coupled with similar education for it to be truly effective, Lopez believes.
Still others argue that the idea of students on boards is fundamentally flawed. One is Seth Andrew, who founded the first Democracy Prep charter school in 2005. (The civics education-focused network has since expanded to 21 schools; a 2018 study showed that students enrolled in a Democracy Prep school were much more likely to register to vote and to vote than their peers.)
Too often, he said, adults confuse the ends of civics education with the means. Putting students—or parents or teachers—on school boards as voting members potentially undermines checks and balances in the system, akin to having a U.S. Supreme Court member also serving in the legislature.
“It actually sets up a really complicated dynamic,” Andrew said, pointing out the quandary that could occur if a student board member ran afoul of the district’s discipline policies. “I don’t think we have to run schools like direct democracies or representative democracies, but we do have to teach kids how to function in the authentic, imperfect democracy that awaits them when they graduate.”
There is an argument to be made that students serving on the board reap the most civic benefits of the role, rather than the student body at large.
Gilleland served as Anne Arundel’s 1994-95 student board representative. One lesson he’s carried: While democracy can be messy, slow-moving, and sometimes dull, it’s also consequential.
“Naturally every student, or adult, who comes on the board has one or two or three issues they want to impact and dedicate their time to enhancing. And yet once you get there you go, ‘Oh, wow,’” he said. “Your time and energy are devoted to labor negotiations, or something happens that is not expected, like safety and security or bullying. ... That sense of responsibility and accountability is something that turns a 17-year-old into a 40-year-old almost immediately.”
Tackling the Tough Issues
Although limited, the anecdotal evidence from the Maryland districts suggests student board members are willing to put issues on the table that make many adults blanch.
Urrea’s push on student rankings is one example. And in January, Tadikonda introduced a resolution, later adopted by the board, that has emerged as the most divisive school issue of the year in Montgomery County: to hire a consultant to determine whether some school boundaries could be redrawn to improve diversity.
It was a direct response to all that constituency work she’s done, and students are leading the charge for school integration at community forums.
The county is months if not years away from analyzing results or changing any boundaries as a result of the study. But the mere idea has galvanized vociferous opposition, and in the pages of local media reports, yielded predictably coded comments about whether more integrated schools would be “academically rigorous” enough. That’s an educational experience, too, though not a particularly heartening one.
“It’s kind of disappointing to see some of the issues that have come up at the community forums,” Tadikonda said.
As for Urrea, the future of her idea in Anne Arundel County hinges on a board vote later this month, but the experience has already altered her life trajectory. She’d planned to major in engineering when she matriculates to the University of Maryland in the fall. But now, she said, she is planning to double major, in Chinese, and in a perfect reflection of her board service—public policy.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as Citizen Z: On School Boards, Students’ Voices, Votes Are Rare