Should Students Sit on School Boards?

Advocates say teenagers deserve a say in policies that affect them. But do students have the maturity and experience to make responsible decisions?

School desks placed by activists block a street in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in a demonstration against student dropout rates. (Richard Vogel/AP Photo)

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.” 

In fact, teenagers have “islets of maturity,” according to Dr. Terri Apter, a psychologist at Cambridge and author of The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need From Parents to Become Adults. High school students may appear highly rational in discussing an abstract issue but then revert to childish logic with a parent—say, complaining that something isn’t fair. Also, while adolescents can have as strong a grasp on probability and risk as any adult, their sensitivity to peer pressure can overpower their impartial faculties.  

“Adults are so invested in our institutions,” believes Adam Fletcher, founder and director of Sound Out, an organization that promotes student involvement in education. “And we get very worried whenever we have to hand over any modicum of control to young people.” To claim that students are incapable of successfully engaging on school boards reflects a fear-driven perspective that “positions students as empty vessel of an adult-driven society. “If I’ve learned one thing in my work over the last decade, says Fletcher, “it’s that students are actively, passionately, and fully capable of transforming education.”   

“Many teens are capable of complex budget discussions,” adds Dr. Apter. “Think of a school board proposing a budget cut. Those on the board should look at the overall well-being and functioning of the school.” However, it will be particularly difficult” for an adolescent to support a decision that disadvantages some of his or her classmates, even if it’s the best outcome for the school.

In general, there is a growing trend to take student input more seriously in educational reform, especially when it comes to their teachers. “There is strong research showing that student surveys can be very important tools and are quite predictive when it comes to teacher quality,” says Nancy Walser, editor of the Harvard Education Letter and author of The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the age of Accountability. For starters, the MET Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found a strong correlation between students’ experience in a classroom, as reported on survey questionnaires, and a teacher’s overall effectiveness. Beginning in the 2014-1015 school year, districts in Massachusetts will formally start incorporating student feedback into their teacher evaluations.

The problem in Los Angeles, however, is that a single adolescent voice will likely be drowned by adult members and could easily under-represent the interests of the student body as a whole, warns Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor and author of the forthcoming book Inequality In The Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. School boards often pay disproportionate attention to families savvy enough to hoard educational opportunities among a narrow group. Conversely, those families impacted by homelessness and other social problems, says Dr. Lewis-McCoy, find it difficult to promote their—and their children’s—interests.

The debate over whether to include students in school decisions is an important one. But ultimately, putting one or two teenagers on a school board won’t make much of a difference if they don’t represent families traditionally left from the table in the first place.