School & District Management

Student School Board Members Want More Meaningful Roles. Here’s How They’re Working For Them

By Evie Blad — November 20, 2023 3 min read
Image of a board room.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The hundreds of students who serve on state and local school boards around the country typically don’t have a vote, but they don’t want that to stop them from making an impact.

Recognizing the challenges and possibilities of the unique role, some former student board members recently formed a national organization to help their peers hit the ground running.

The National Student Board Member Association held its first virtual conference in August. The goal: To help student members build collaborative relationships with their adult colleagues and meaningfully represent the voices of their student peers.

Here are three ways the organization and student board members in 42 states are pushing to make student board seats count.

1. Studying up on complicated rules and policy

At least 31 states allow local boards to have student members, who are either selected by adult trustees or elected by their peers, according to the National School Boards Association.

Unlike elected adult peers, student members typically serve for one-year terms. That gives them a very short runway to learn about the layers of local, state, and federal policy involved in district operations, said Zachary Patterson, who previously served as a student member on the San Diego school board and helped found NSBMA.

“All of these things are pretty big barriers to entry,” he said.

Before helping create the national organization, Patterson and some of his peers in California organized online cram sessions about topics like meeting procedures, how to file a motion, how district budgets work, and federal funding streams like Title I.

The national organization will take a similar approach, helping students to feel equipped and supported, even at their first meetings, he said.

2. Working more effectively with adults

Students who serve on school boards want to be sure their work is more than a feel-good exercise for adults, said Jennifer Tran who petitioned to create her role as the student member of the Garden Grove, Calif., school board during the 2021-22 school year and later helped found NSBMA.

Too often, students feel “tokenized” by adults, but they don’t always feel supported to speak up during tough conversations about issues like COVID precautions and student mental health, Tran said.

Research from Villanova University Professor Jerusha O. Conner, Princeton University student Zachariah Sippy, and Andrew Brennen, who co-founded the Kentucky Student Voice team, supports this assertion.

The authors interviewed seven U.S. student members about how they served during the 2020-21 school year and how adults responded. Students reported that adult members sometimes suppressed their voices by responding emotionally when they spoke up about issues like school re-openings, questioning their legal ability to participate or excluding them entirely.

While adults may seek student voice through a variety of channels, like occasional sessions with student groups, student board members provide a needed level of consistency by following discussions from start to finish and better understanding the board’s work, advocates said.

But claiming a place in discussions doesn’t mean that student members have to take adversarial positions against adults, Tran said. NSBMA wants students to learn to cooperate with adult board members to amplify and refine each other’s ideas.

3. Advocating for more voting power

Some students have also advocated for more power—or more meaningful votes in board matters.

Seven states allow student members to cast preferential votes, which allows them to record their positions on board decisions without affecting the outcome.

Just one state, Maryland, allows student board members in some districts to cast binding votes on most major decisions alongside adults. (The state’s legislature has approved the voting powers of student board members in eight of the state’s 24 districts through individual pieces of legislation, the earliest of which passed in 1974.)

Advocates like Tran have pushed for state laws that extend preferential voting to more students and expand their rights to cast official votes on district matters. They’ve faced some resistance from adults, who argue that students who are not elected by the general public shouldn’t have the power to weigh in on weighty decisions like spending public funds.

In 2022, Tran helped a California lawmaker draft a bill that would have allowed school boards in the state to offer full voting rights to student members. The full legislature did not consider the bill.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates
The leader of an effort to equip K-12 leaders with conflict resolution skills urges relationship-building—and knowing when to disengage.
7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
Katy Anthes, who served as commissioner of education in Colorado from 2016-2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024. Anthes specializes in helping school district leaders successfully manage politically charged conflicts.
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week
School & District Management Virginia School Board Restores Confederate Names to 2 Schools
The vote reverses a decision made in 2020 as dozens of schools nationwide dropped Confederate figures from their names.
2 min read
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
Steve Helber/AP
School & District Management Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About the School District Technology Leader?
The tech director at school districts is a key player when it comes to purchasing. Test your knowledge of this key buyer persona and see how your results stack up with your peers.
School & District Management Deepfakes Expose Public School Employees to New Threats
The only protection for school leaders is a healthy dose of skepticism.
7 min read
Signage is shown outside on the grounds of Pikesville High School, May 2, 2012, in Baltimore County, Md. The most recent criminal case involving artificial intelligence emerged in late April 2024, from the Maryland high school, where police say a principal was framed as racist by a fake recording of his voice.
Police say a principal was framed making racist remarks through a fake recording of his voice at Pikesville High School, a troubling new use of AI that could affect more educators. A sign announces the entrance to the Baltimore County, Md., school on May 2, 2012.
Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun via AP