Students Are the Soul of Policy

In this opinion piece, a student argues for the importance of student representation on boards of education.

Eliza Jane Schaeffer speaking before the Fayette County Board of Education in 2016 to make the case for why students should be added to superintendent screening committees.

With each Kentucky legislative session, P-12 public education, which comprises over a third of the state budget, takes the spotlight. And the 2024 session that began just after New Year’s and wrapped up Monday was no different.

Policies were proposed that centered everything from teacher pay, bus transportation, and post-secondary readiness to school safety, civic engagement, and school funding. At the same time, students throughout the Commonwealth saw numerous repercussions of policies implemented during previous sessions, including those of Senate Bill 5 which would limit classroom conversations on controversial issues and about which I wrote a commentary for The New Edu. But while adults were discussing the issues, one key player was missing.

As the primary stakeholders of our schools, Kentucky students offer essential perspectives, a point that is underscored by young people themselves. One Henderson County High School senior, who wished to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns in their district, described the unique value students bring to school feedback loops: “Administration often takes an all-or-nothing approach, which can tend to make situations worse for all student parties. Input from students could help administrators understand the thoughts of students as well as teach them to come up with solutions that benefit the students instead of simply enforcing punishment,” they said.

Students are the most knowledgeable about the effects of many education policies, especially concerning the policies of their individual districts. To address problems directly, we need a platform to amplify our voices and perspectives and participate in conversations around the issues. For example, as schools in counties like JCPS have begun implementing weapons detection systems, students lack a means to offer feedback on these decisions which could likely better inform policy implementation. 

A Promising Proposal

House Bill 381 (HB 381) was one bill proposed this session that sought to advance student representation, paving the way for the addition of students on every public school district’s board of education. The bill, which did not make it out of committee, would have set a precedent that each district should have a minimum of one high school student to represent their peers in their district.

Students under the age of 18 may be too young to vote, but they should not be dismissed as too young to exercise their voices in the decisions that affect them. HB 381 would have provided a platform to allow students to practice critical elements of citizenship through learning, advocating, and representing themselves and other young people in the public education system. We wouldn't want an agricultural committee without a farmer's input, for instance, and similarly, education decisions shouldn't be made without the input of those most impacted. 

As Kentucky’s voter turnout hits another low, we should think more about the connection between student voice and representation. In requiring more robust civic standards and assessment, HB 381 would have allowed students to better understand how our democratic republic works and understand more about problems within our school communities. 

Joud Daleh participating in a 2023 Kentucky Board of Education meeting as an ex-officio student representative, just the second Kentucky student ever to hold that role after a bill requiring student representation was signed into law by Governor Steve Beshear.

What the Research Shows

A growing body of evidence at the national, state, and local levels suggests that more people are open to finding ways to bring young people into education and other civic decision-making.

In 2022, Tuft’s CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, conducted a national online survey of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29. Of those, 76% of respondents said they believe that young people have the ability and power to change the nation. Last year in Kentucky, the Courier-Journal reported that there was growing legislative interest in supporting students to play more active roles in school governance and that as of 2023, 15 school districts in the state already had student representatives on their local school boards. At the local level in Owensboro Independent, and as reported by the Owensboro Times, this year saw the additional implementation of non-voting student representatives to the Owensboro Public Schools Board of Education.

I was one of the students who helped realize the new policy in Owensboro, but I am just one Kentucky student working with local leaders in this way. There is also Joud Dahleh, a former Kentucky Board of Education non-voting student representative and senior at the Ignite Institute in Boone County. She described the benefits of including students from her unusual vantage point.

“Students can bring a unique and vital perspective on what's working and what’s not working in our schools. From my role on the state board of education, I’ve seen firsthand how students can notice problems and propose solutions that adults can sometimes miss,” she said.

Boone County Student Representative of the Board of Education, Youssef Saidi, a senior at Randall K. Cooper High School also offers some unique expertise regarding students serving on school decision-making bodies. “Without a doubt, this is one of the single most innovative and necessary forms of student empowerment,” he said.

From the overturning of a local book ban in Boyle County by students to a fight against hair discrimination by students in Jefferson County to a lawsuit against legislation such as last year’s House Bill 150 by trans students in Fayette County to prevent the further marginalization of them in school, even before they are eligible to vote, students are not only ready and able to serve on the front lines of education justice in Kentucky and across the country, in some cases, they already are. 

(Header image: Eliza Jane Schaeffer speaking before the Fayette County Board of Education in 2016 to make the case for why students should be added to superintendent screening committees.)


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