The Importance of a Student Voting Board Member: Teaching Youth to be More Civically Engaged
Across the U.S., many youth participate in local and state politics in order to make a difference in their communities. However, the prospect of a voting student board member on local and state school boards is often overlooked. States like Maryland are visionaries of democracy, empowering youth and engaging them in the democratic process by electing a state student member of the board with full voting rights.
Unfortunately, this seems to be quite rare within the United States. Currently, out of 51 state education agencies, only 22 have state student members. In regards to county and city student board members, California and Maryland are the only states who include these as necessary components of boards of education. Taking into consideration the complexity of decision-making within educational policy and how drastically it affects students, it is surprising that so few students have a say in the decisions that impact them.
In many states and districts, student board members only serve as opinion-based members, with no vote towards a decision's outcome. States like Washington, Oregon, and Nevada have non-voting student board members. This goes to show the lack of representation students have in matters that affect them directly. In our current political climate, students are more civically engaged than ever, rallying together for pressing issues such as climate change, abortion, and gun control laws. Social media mobilized youth populations by encouraging them to share diverse perspectives and rally together over issues they care about. This begs the question: hy are students, the future of our country, so underrepresented on school boards?
A fresh perspective from a student member can trump the opinions of board members who may not have set foot in a school for over 30 years. When it comes to decision-making, a diverse student outlook can open the doors to school boards making more well-informed decisions.
Maryland, one of the four states with a voting student board member on the State Board of Education, has excelled at involving students in decision-making processes (Sawchuck, 2019). Kevin Boukum, the current Maryland State SMOB, has extensive experience in educational policy and student advocacy. He previously served as the Washington County SMOB and was able to review policies for equity. Additionally, he had the authority to assist in refining the fine arts’ programs and extending ESOL programs. As state SMOB, he has been able to push for the state-wide mask mandate and has a full vote on most processes with the exception of legal appeals and negative personnel. Negative personnel includes the firing or reprimand of staff. He exclusively represents the perspective of 900,000+ primary and secondary school students in Maryland. Regardless, he is still able to provide comments and make suggestions on behalf of students in the state. He has significant power to benefit students all across Maryland by providing input and developing policies that align with student interests directly. He says “in order to have an effective and capable education system, the voice of students must be the primary focus in developing policy.” He also mentions the importance of teacher members, which are often overlooked but have a lot of valuable input to share. As state SMOB, Kevin maintains constant communication with district SMOBs and Maryland, who remain active in policy—from metropolitan central Maryland all the way to southern Maryland. Most district SMOBs in Maryland have their own SMOB advisory councils, which consist of student leaders who provide further input on SMOB decision-making.
The impact of COVID-19 will require us to take into account the opinions of young students and make decisions that best represent their interests. Inspiring the youth to become more involved with local and state governments is paramount to changing the status quo. The new generation must be equipped to absorb new ideas and solve problems. With that said, students indubitably need more opportunities to get involved in all levels of educational policy and adult and educational leaders need to see the value and benefit of the student voice and its positive effects.