School boards have become the arena for heated political debates, and the kids want a seat at the table.
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When Shiva Rajbhandari, 18, recounts his senior year so far, he recalls travels to Nepal in June to visit family. His cross country team is good this year; he got involved in Model UN and his school’s Green Club. And as the academic year began, Rajbhandari won a seat on the school board, defeating an incumbent candidate and marking the first time a student has served on a school board in his hometown of Boise, Idaho.
For a typical high schooler, one of these things is not like the others. But Rajbhandari pushes back against that sentiment. “I’m not some kind of unique student voice. I think really any of us could have done it. I was just the first one,” he says.
Even beyond the scope of Boise schools, Rajbhandari serving as a school board member is a standout example of the urgency around young people having a say in the structures and policies that impact them directly. Rajbhandari’s election came at a critical time for school board races. School boards have become outlets for far-right debates on how racism and American history are taught in schools, for anti-mask parents to protest, and for the right to attack the rights and well-being of LGBTQ+ students. In October 2022, during a Michigan school board meeting, a high schooler was accused of painting a mural in a teen health center that depicted “LGBTQ+ propaganda, a depiction of Satan, and a message of witchcraft.” As Mary Retta reported for Teen Vogue, the issues in school board elections range from how race and history are taught, quality of life for LGBTQ+ students, and Covid protocols. In short, the consequences of school board elections impact everything from what a student learns and what resources they have access to, to their day-to-day lives.
Despite being the main constituency of schools, students are often systematically boxed out from decision-making. Yet research shows that lowering the voting age can lead to longer-term increases in voter turnout, strengthens civics education, and would allow 16- and 17-year-olds, who pay taxes on their income, to be equal constituents. Some communities have embraced this: Berkeley and Okaland, California lowered the voting age to 16 specifically for school board elections, while Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, and Takoma Park, Maryland lowered the voting age for all local elections. But beyond those instances, young people are largely without a formal say in the political process–which is especially problematic when it comes to school board elections, given that an entire base of constituents has no power over electing candidates whose policies will directly affect them.
To understand why the lack of student representation on school boards is harmful, it’s necessary to grasp how school boards operate. Generally, the role of a school board is to establish a vision or goals for public schools in their district and set standards for school and superintendent performance, according to the National School Boards Association. But school board races have become hotbeds for political agendas, with conservatives funneling mobilization and funding into securing school board seats.
“What happens in a school, in many ways, helps shape the kinds of people kids grow up to be,” says Amanda Litman, co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something, says. One of many reasons conservatives and extremists are working so hard to win school board elections, Litman says, is that they can at least somewhat dictate the future electorate.
The median age of school board members is 59, but candidates who were more recently students or are current students, Litman says, are “closest to the pain, and therefore, should be closer to the power.” Run for Something has endorsed multiple Gen Z candidates for school board, including Jess Salgado-Ramos, running for Canutillo ISD School Board, At-Large, Texas, and Luc Angelot, running for Wicomico County School Board, District 1, in Maryland, among others.
School board races are work Litman says keeps her up at night, “because it’s the one that’s the hardest to solve for, and the most detrimental to the future of the American experiment.”
There are roughly 81,000 elected school board positions across the country, with about a quarter of them up for re-election any given year, Litman explains.Of the 21,000 up for grabs this year, only half are happening in November–the other half take place throughout the calendar year, differing wildly in the ways they are structured, how positions are elected, and what kind of jurisdiction they have. She explains that, over the past 30-40 years, the Republican Party and far-right extremists have devoted immense effort and money to win these offices. Litman thinks that the left needs to be thinking “expansively about where we’re supporting school board races; we need to put as much as we can into recruitment and support year-round for these positions.”
It’s not lack of interest that keeps students from running themselves. Zachary Patterson, 19, the former first-ever student school board member for the San Diego Board of Education and co-founder of the National Student Board Member Association, breaks down why wins like Rajbhandari’s are hard to replicate, largely because of the student candidate’s age. Rajbhandari was 18 by the general election, meaning he was of age to run while still being a high school student. For most students, Patterson said, the election timing alone can make it logistically impossible to be a candidate as a student.
On some school boards, there are student-specific seats. According to the National Student Board Member Association, a student board member is a student serving on a state, local, regional, or charter school Board of Education. Within student school board members, there’s wide variance in whether or not students are allowed to vote, and in some instances, what they can vote for.
If it sounds confusing that someone could be a non-voting member, that’s by design. Patterson says there isn’t much information as to why so many student positions are non-voting, but points to two leading explanations. First, there’s the argument of a conflict of interest. For example, a teacher school board member being able to vote on their own salary and advocate for their union in collective bargaining, or a student having an outsized say in grading and classroom policies, Patterson explained. Yet this, Patterson clarifies, is a fallacy—school board members in many states do set and raise salaries, and the point of a representative democracy is those experiencing the system having a say in it. Second, Patterson hears that students aren’t prepared to vote on complex concepts. “The idea is fascinating as it somehow implies that students cannot handle negotiations or that not everything a school board does affects students,” he adds. “Of course, this notion is false.”
Bunmi Omisore, 19, was elected to serve on Anne Arundel County Board of Education during the 2021-2022 school year—the only student board member in the nation on a local board with full voting rights. As a public official, Omisore served on the policy committee, chaired the board’s equity committee, and went to board meetings every other week, which ranged from four to eight hours during budget season, she said. Specifically, Omisore, notes the importance of student voice on the budget. During her term, she passed an amendment providing $2 million for free menstruation products to be in all schools by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Solyana Mesfin, 19, was the first student to serve on the Kentucky Board of Education, and during her term, faced legislation that sought to get rid of two non-voting seats on the board: those reserved for a school teacher and a student. A student-led campaign swiftly followed to protect the seat, and Mesfin credits the effort of students, teachers, and allies across the state with being able to finish her term. Mesfin was also part of the decision to make student membership on local boards of education easier in Kentucky. Since then, at least two counties have appointed a student member, she said, and she hopes Kentucky will lead in allowing the next student board members to vote.
“Ultimately, we’re the ones in the classroom every single day, seven hours a day, experiencing everything–all the decisions that are being made–firsthand, and directly,” Mesfin says. She adds that not one student is the same, which makes the case for having more student voices to be more representative of diverse perspectives.
What happens in a school board election isn’t only relevant when it makes headlines–it shapes the experiences, education, and well-being of stakeholders every day. That’s why having students serve–and vote–remains critical. It’s not about having a teen advisory council, Omisore says, where there’s no accountability to listen to students. “A vote affects policy,” she says. “You can hear what students have to say, but only a vote makes you listen.”
The stakes of the future of how American education–and of democracy–are high, and school boards as legislative battlegrounds are examples of that urgency. But without young people, the primary constituents of schools, being able to vote for or serve as board members, there’s a key group of stakeholders left out of consequential governing bodies.
Before Rajbhandari decided to run, he and students across the school district had been working on a long-term plan for clean energy, focusing on how taking climate action seriously in the district could save schools money and be beneficial for student health. Even after two years of reaching out to board members, asking for meetings, and sending postcards and letters to the editor, “we just never really got [the] engagement that I think we deserved from our board members,” Rajbhandari says. “It was like we weren’t seen as constituents, as stakeholders in our education.”
Now, that line of thought is carrying into his work. When he goes off to college, he believes he should be replaced with a new student member; if the board declines that, he says he’ll serve the two-year term. “I think young people should always be engaged in our democracy,” he says. Young people are capable of bringing a lot to the table, he added, if they’re given a seat.
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