Saturday, January 26, 2013

Let high school students vote in school board elections

Reading Nicholas J’s blog makes me think of how entirely oblivious I was, throughout my own time in school, to the fact that there are different ways to think about educating people—that the school system is the product of a series of choices, and that other choices are possible. I don’t think anyone wanted us to think about that, though it strikes me as something that could only be good for one’s education.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think education would benefit from an infusion of democracy in many different forms. From top to bottom, our educational system seems to be pervaded by a fear and distrust of democracy, and a general sense that people cannot be trusted to make good decisions and must instead be dictated to from above.

One small way to buck that trend: Why not let high school students vote in local school board elections?

This is not a very revolutionary idea. It’s not as if it would change anything overnight. For one thing, state and federal control over education have left school boards with relatively little decision-making power. Students would probably not turn out in large numbers for school board elections—why should they be any different than the rest of us?—and would be unlikely to vote as a bloc. They would be unlikely to tip the scales in any election, and could do so only if the election were close anyway.

But I think it could change the dynamic in ways that would matter. For one thing, candidates naturally seek votes wherever they can find them. Board candidates would have a new set of voters to solicit, and would have to think about those voters’ interests in a different way. There would suddenly be an incentive for school officials to see students as more than just the passive objects of their attention, and to “respect” them in a way they’ve never had to before. Now there would be people inviting the students to think about their own education, and about how it might be improved. Wouldn’t that be desirable under virtually any theory of learning?

Enfranchising high school students, even in this limited way, would also present those students with a very different model of governance, one much more consistent with the traditional ideals of a democracy. Currently schools are little totalitarian states, geared toward producing obedient subjects, not active participants in a democracy. Yet these students are on the verge of turning eighteen and becoming fully enfranchised. Wouldn’t it make sense to offer them a little practice first?


PsychMom said...

An excellent every level of school. The Customers in the equation are not just parents or tax payers. As parents we already know that you get better buy in when you offer choice, not just decree what is to be.

Nicholas J said...

I love it!!! Maybe if this happened, the people that govern schools would actually start thinking about the students that the system is supposed to serve, and students would learn much about the way that their schools work and their role in a democratic government. But why stop there? What if students could run for school board as voting members? Think about the course the discussion could take.

This is probably a little too radical and would never happen, but there needs to be more student presence in education circles. Even if school board members or state and federal lawmakers proactively reached out to students and held meetings with students during the school day, it would be a step in the right direction.

Chris said...

Thanks, PsychMom and Nicholas J. Of course, my little proposal falls way short of what they do at Sudbury Schools, and somehow the Sudbury graduates don't all turn out to be helpless wards of the state. (See this post.)

Nicholas J -- you get to be first in line when the legislature lowers the voting (and candidacy) age for school board elections. But, since finding an additional ten minutes for kindergartners to eat lunch apparently qualifies as a hopelessly impossible goal, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this change to occur.

Alexandra Greenwood said...

High school students have a lot of things to say especially when it comes to leadership. Good point about including them to vote in the student board elections.