School & District Management

Students on School Boards: Balancing Representation and Fairness

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 13, 2019 4 min read
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Earlier this week, I published a story for Education Week on the phenomenon of students with real, consequential votes on their local boards of education.

As part of our exploration of how students experience civics in public school—beyond just their government classes—this story hinges on an imminently logical question: Students are affected by every board decision. So why do they seldom get a say on them?

While it’s relatively common for students to serve in an advisory capacity, they very rarely get a full board vote.

My story looked at this issue mainly from a conceptual standpoint. It also profiled two wonderful young women in Maryland who vote on nearly all school board issues—and haven’t been afraid to propose policies addressing tough topics like mental health and segregation.

As I promoted the story online, there were a number of interesting reactions. Many readers sympathized with the idea, but they raised some worthwhile and practical governance questions that deserve more attention than I was able to give them in my story. So let’s dig in:

Several commenters suggested that students should only serve on board if they’re elected like other board members. (This is already the case in several states.) The problem with this is that is that most high school students don’t turn 18 until late in their senior year. And since most secondary students aren’t 18, they wouldn’t even be able to participate in those elections. So how do you get around that?

One idea is to allow students to nominate the person who will serve as their representative—who then should be selected by voters overall.

Another idea: Make it easier for students to vote in the first place.

This comment, from Randy Geller, below, kicked off a thread on reducing the voting age to 16, so students can participate in board elections (and presumably, also run for office). While not a widespread phenomenon, several cities are considering this idea, including Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest district.

If you do believe in a voting student member, as opposed to only adults, what’s the best way to pick that student? My colleague Christina Samuels offered this thought:

There are already a few models here: Montgomery County and Anne Arundel counties, both in Maryland, use different student representation methods. In Montgomery County it’s ultimately done through a direct election of the secondary student body, while in Anne Arundel it’s done through an Electoral College-like situation, in which representatives from each high school make the call among the finalists. (Debate and discuss which you think is more effective!)

Another commentator wondered about the shortness of student board positions—typically just for one year rather than the more typical 3-5 years in school districts..

He’s right on both accounts: I noted in my story that often the students on the board traditionally aren’t always demographically or philosophically aligned with students in general —favoring students already deeply invested in school government, for example, or those who can make it through a screening process that can disadvantage certain groups of students. (Often boards require students to be “in good academic standing,” which can mean having a certain GPA.)

And, yes, having a board member elected only by students does shut out other members of the community. On the other hand, regular school board members often are elected only by a segment of the population, too, with representatives from different “districts” or “wards” who are in theory balanced by at-large members.)

For all these reasons, civics advocates share some different opinions on the practical and symbolic value of students on boards. There aren’t any easy answers here—but this is a topic that, in our mind, deserves some more debate and discussion.

And if you like this line of reporting, Education Week‘s Citizen Z project is looking at all facets of civics education, and there’s plenty more to come.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.