The day after the Capitol Hill tragedy on January 6, 2021, Charlie Wilson, the 2020-21 President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), wrote a thoughtful letter to the American school board community and supporters of public education. In the letter, Mr. Wilson reinforced the commitment of locally elected school board members to teaching students to be good citizens of a democratic society. According to Mr. Wilson, school leaders should “serve at all times as guardians of these principles: of democracy, of liberty, of equality, of civility and community, and of the Constitution and the rule of law.”
As guardians of the abovementioned principles, school leaders and educators are not only role models to students, but also visionaries of democratic education. As a philosophy, democratic education emphasizes the mission of schools to prepare students to act democratically out of a sense of equality and autonomy. It is a common belief among school leaders that “public education must foster in students an understanding of the moral values and civic responsibilities that form the foundation of American society.”
One way to nurture democratic citizenship is to engage students in the governing process of local school boards. While little research is found on student representatives in school boards, there is a consensus on the positivity of having students serve on the board. By creating opportunities for students to participate in the democratic process, school leaders can help student board members to learn how to observe all laws and rules, how to resolve conflicts peacefully, how to demonstrate a commitment to the public good, and how to work for a community and cooperate with all stakeholders.
Not All States Have Students Serving on Local School Boards
A survey conducted in 2009 shows that among the 39 responding state associations, 14 states reported that they did not have students serving on local school boards, but 25 states reported that they did. In 2020, NSBA surveyed 49 state associations about school board governance, and the results regarding student board members (Figure 1) were consistent with those of the 2009 survey.
- Fourteen states reported that having students serving on local school boards was not their practice. Many of the states are in the southern region, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas.
- The 31 states that reported having student board members as a local option are mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.
- In California, although the survey data is missing, the state law requires that a school district appoint a student school board member upon receiving a petition signed by 10% of high school students in the district or by 500 high school students at large requesting student representation on the governing board.
- Ohio and Massachusetts state associations reported that the state requires boards to include students as members, but it is unclear who and what is required. In Ohio, the statutes about school boards include an article pursuant to which school districts may designate a student-led violence prevention club for each school building in the district or school serving grades six through twelve, and the club should be open to all members of the student body. In Massachusetts, the law lists certain advisory councils to the board that students may serve on.
Among the 495 U.S. Largest School Districts, 14% Have Student Board Members
To further understand how students serve on school boards, the NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) conducted additional research on student board members. In our study, student board members are defined as students who are either appointed or elected to serve on the school board and whose name, contact information and/or bio are posted on the governing board website. School districts may use different titles for student board members, such as scholar representative, student adviser, student trustee, student ambassador, and student commissioner.
To explore the local school board websites, we used the list of the U.S. largest public school districts ranked by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). We found that as of January 2021, 67 out of 495 school districts (14%) have students serving on their governing boards. Among the 67 school districts —
- The vast majority (75%) have one student board member.
- Ten districts have two student board members. In some districts, one of the two is an alternate.
- Six districts have 3-7 student board members, who represent students from different grades, different schools, or different demographic groups. For example, in California, the Manteca Unified and Desert Sands Unified School Districts have 5 and 7 student board members respectively.
- The Eugene School District (OR) has a unique “Student Advisory Panel” that sits with the board at all regular public meetings and represents students’ interests. The panel consists of one representative from each high school.
- Saint Paul Public Schools, a district in Minnesota, has a Student Engagement and Advancement Board (SEAB) to advise the governing board. The SEAB works on multiple initiatives each year to increase the student voice in decision making at the Board and Administration levels.
Diversity is a Characteristic of Student Board Members
Most student board members are high school students and serve a one-year term. They have outstanding academic performance, as well as rich experiences in extracurricular and youth leadership programs. Diversity is a characteristic of student board members. These students represent and advocate for their communities and use their role to improve education for all students of their districts. For example,
- Ivy Pete is an appointed student advisor serving the school board of Spokane Public Schools (WA). She is one of the 28 native students in her high school.
- Khymani James, a Black student serving on the school board of Boston Public Schools (MA), believes what his mother told him — "Education is the key to success.” He empathizes with the struggles of his community members, and is determined to “work tirelessly to ensure that students across the district are given the education to which they are entitled.”
- Isa Sheikh has served the school board of Sacramento City Unified district (CA) for the past two years. Born in a hardworking Indian immigrant family, he understands the importance of education. As a representative on the Student Advisory Council, he strives to promote student voices within the district and bring attention to the daily challenges that students face.
In some districts, student board members must go through an election process, while in other districts, school boards select student representatives in accordance with procedures approved by the board. Likewise, in some districts, student board members can vote like an elected school board member, but this is not a common practice.
As a uniquely American institution, the local school board has made public schools flexible and responsive to the needs of local communities. In general, school boards believe that it is important to seek out and consider students' ideas, viewpoints, and reactions to the educational program. School governing boards may include student representatives to provide student input and involvement. However, it should not be the only approach to democratic education.
School can be a place where children learn to think critically, to cooperate, to love to learn. More than that, school is a place where students are educated to become citizens of a democratic society. To reinforce the role of democratic education, we echo Mr. Wilson in quoting former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “The practice of democracy is not passed down through our gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”