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.