For centuries, students have been agents of social change, their passion and idealism forming a critical part of the historical landscape; a lesson that, in education, teachers and administrators ignore at their peril. But figuring out how best to appropriate student interests raises difficult questions. Do students belong on school boards? Should they participate in budgetary evaluations and contract negotiations? Are teenagers—who can’t vote in governmental elections or legally purchase cigarettes—equipped to make long-term decisions about their education, or will they inevitably sink to the lowest common denominator? These are issues policymakers have battled for decades, most recently in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, where students now have a voice on their local school board.
Earlier this month, after a series of protests, including one in which participants placed hundreds of empty desks on a street in downtown Los Angeles to represent the number of kids who drop out each week, the L.A. Unified School district accepted a petition to give students a non-voting seat on the school board. The protesters had wanted a peer-elected member. But instead, by a 5-1 vote, the board of education approved an amendment giving superintendent John Deasy 120 days to decide how a student member will be chosen, and the role he or she will fill.
The decision will not be easy. “From a teenager’s point of view, I have two conflicting opinions about students on school boards,” says Dr. John Bryan Starr a lecturer in Yale’s political science department and consultant to the Connecticut Superintendents Network. “During the first half of my tenure as an elected member on the [New Canaan, Conn.] school board, there were these two poor kids, who just sat there glassy-eyed in total boredom. They didn’t have a vote and virtually never had a voice. They realized they were just wasting their time.”
On the other hand Dr. Starr says, based on his Yale seminars, other students who sat on city and state school boards before college have had much more positive experiences. “While it’s highly unusual for them to be given a vote, students were able to assemble opinions, engage in deliberations and felt they were actively representing their peers’ interests.”
But ironically, students already may have too much of a stake in the outcome. Like numerous other states, New Jersey’s state board considers it a conflict if members have family working for the school district, and thus prevents them from voting on items like teacher contracts and selection of the superintendent. Students, too, face inherent conflicts of interests as they negotiate their daily life with teachers and peers at school.
Gene Maeroff, author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy and founding director of Columbia’s Hechinger Institute on Education and Media, believes that it’s better for students to have a non-voting role. But that doesn’t mean young people should be discounted entirely: “Of course, you can also get away from some of these problems if you have memberships of recent graduates, over the age of 18, who live in the school district.” And while current students are accused of short-sightedness, focusing on one or two pet issues (say, fewer homework hours or more sports funding), Maeroff points out that adults are also often guilty of pursuing a narrow agenda.
The idea of students on school boards emerges from the progressive notion that children should have a voice and that we should respect their views, explains Matthew Levey, founder of the International Charter School in Brooklyn. But Levey warns that while students can debate topics like cafeteria menus effectively, in large districts like LA and New York teenagers are ill-equipped to grasp the intricacies of financial tradeoffs, like whether a city should issue 30-year bonds. “Take curriculum and hiring choices. 99 percent of adults have trouble making thoughtful decisions,” says Levey. “There is a reason parents set boundaries and enforce rules. Most teenagers, while it’s wonderful how they can articulate their views on many important topics, are not in the best position to make complicated, long-range decisions for themselves or their community.”