In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many voices have contributed to conversations on how best to educate students remotely, how and when to reopen schools, and how to address the vast inequities exposed by the pandemic. One important voice that has been largely missing in these discussions, however, is that of students. K-12 students have been uniquely affected by COVID-19, but they have had little to no say in the state of their own education.
To hear directly from students, in late 2020, the Center for American Progress partnered with the student-led nonprofit organization Student Voice to conduct a community conversation with high schoolers from across the country. The discussion focused on ways in which their schools were not listening to them and how they would like their voices to be included in future decision-making. While the lack of student voice in education is not a problem unique to the current moment, the pandemic has certainly made addressing the issue more urgent. As districts, schools, and policymakers continue to navigate COVID-19 and plan for a post-pandemic world, it is critical that students’ voices—especially those of underserved and historically disadvantaged backgrounds—are not just listened to but also actively sought and included in solutions.
Policymakers must elevate student voices to create outcomes that benefit all students
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for students’ voices to be considered in education policymaking were limited and unequal. Formal inclusion of students in decision-making bodies is rare. Only 10 states require at least one student member on their state board of education, and of those, only five give these members full voting power. A 2018 survey also found that school board demographics are not reflective of the students they represent, with 78 percent of school board members identifying as white and a majority reporting an annual household income of $100,000 to $200,000. In comparison, only 46 percent of K-12 students are white, and almost 58 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
One community conversation participant, Leigh Walden, a 17-year-old Colorado student, shared how the lack of student voice on school boards affects young people:
The largest stakeholders in education are students and teachers, but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at the composition of most every school board in the U.S. The reason that schooling feels so obsolete for so many young people is because the systems are in no way a reflection of the needs of students. By putting students onto school boards, you reallocate the power to the people that are impacted by it and fundamentally shift conversations to reflect those needs.
Even when students are empowered through extracurriculars, such as student government, they are more likely to be responsible for sponsoring student activities and planning school events than to have a voice in school policymaking.
Jimmy Rodgers, a 17-year-old student from Chicago and an active member of his high school’s student government, explained: “I find myself constantly working towards the betterment of not only Westinghouse but Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as a whole. Oftentimes, I just wish I could do more; it usually feels like I’m screaming underwater.”
Including student voice in decision-making has positive impacts on students and schools. Engaging in opportunities like student government not only benefits individual students by improving their leadership and communication skills, it also benefits school culture, facilities, and procedures. Chicago’s student voice committees, for example, have proven effective in improving student-teacher relationships and led one school to include students in curriculum meetings and discussions on social-emotional learning. The students in our community conversation easily identified solutions to the challenges they are facing during the pandemic—such as reducing workloads and “busy work” to relieve stress; hiring additional school counselors to provide mental health supports to students; and adopting more culturally responsive curriculum to better engage students during and after remote learning. As the people directly affected by education policy, students have invaluable insight into what is and is not working; their opinions should be incorporated in order to create outcomes that benefit all.
Students have already demonstrated their ability to effectively participate in policymaking and decision-making through their advocacy efforts and electoral participation. While youth advocacy is not a new phenomenon, it has gained more and more attention in recent years with the success of groups like March for Our Lives. At the local level, youth working with the grassroots have been able to mobilize thousands in the face of intensified demands for racial justice and schools that serve all students.
Recently, the youth vote—especially that of Black, Indigenous, and other non-Black people of color (BIPOC)—played a critical role in securing President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Even students who were not eligible to vote themselves participated in the election by organizing and helping with voter registration drives, serving as poll workers, and educating community members. Young voters carried on their momentum to the Georgia Senate runoffs, leveraging TikTok and other social media to encourage, and ultimately achieve, high youth turnout. Youth-led groups such as the Sunrise Movement are actively lobbying the Biden administration on the issues that young voters care about, and they are getting results.
Now is the time to capitalize on increased student and youth engagement and civic participation in order to translate their participation at the national level to state, local, and school-based involvement.
How to incorporate student voice at the school, district, and state level
State, district, and school education leaders and policymakers should take steps to ensure that a diverse set of student perspectives is actively being incorporated into the decision-making and policy implementation processes. The following recommendations outline initial steps to achieve this goal, as derived from suggestions from students in our community conversation:
- Include a voting student member on district school boards and state boards of education: District school boards and state boards of education should appoint at least one student member with full voting power to serve as a representative. The student representative(s) should be selected through a democratic process and should be responsible for soliciting opinions from a diverse set of students across the state or district to inform policy decisions. Districts and states may also want to consider lowering the voting age to 16 for municipal elections to enable greater student participation in school board elections.
- Create student advisory groups to inform district and state leaders: State policymakers and district school boards should form student advisory groups comprised of students from across the district or state to advise on policy development and implementation and provide other recommendations. The advisory groups should be demographically diverse and reflective of the district or state they are representing. They should meet regularly with decision-makers and be responsible for surveying students’ opinions and experiences to inform their recommendations.
- Empower student government groups with real authority: Schools should elevate their student governments and imbue them with meaningful responsibilities, such as advising school leadership on critical issues, surveying the student body to provide insight on potential school improvements and school culture, and leading initiatives to increase student engagement. Schools should also consider methods to increase participation in student government of students from traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups—an effort that may include developing alternative selection methods to a traditional voting system or providing a stipend for elected positions.
How to incorporate student voice at the federal level
Like state, district, and school leaders, the Biden administration should prioritize incorporating student perspectives into its policy development and implementation processes. To do so, the administration should:
- Create a youth liaison position at the U.S. Department of Education: The Department of Education should ensure that at least one person is primarily responsible for youth engagement. The youth liaison’s responsibilities would include ensuring that the department is engaging students in its policy development and implementation, elevating student voice in public communications, and developing and maintaining relationships with students and student-led organizations.
- Include students in U.S. Department of Education commissions, working groups, and stakeholder meetings: In order to include student voice in policy development, the Department of Education should actively solicit input from students from diverse backgrounds by including student representatives in every commission, working group, and stakeholder meeting. These representatives should be treated as full participants, not simply advisers, and the students selected should be directly affected by the issue being discussed.
As schools continue to navigate the end of the school year and policymakers look to recover from the pandemic and reimagine and rebuild education, it is vital that students are directly and meaningfully included. Students must be empowered in formal and informal ways to have influence in their own education, not only to benefit themselves but also the education system more broadly. Policymakers cannot praise youth activism and organizing in a political context but block them from having similar influence in their own communities. Incorporating student voice—from students of all backgrounds—is an important step in ensuring that all students have self-determination in their own education and access to a quality education.
Megan Ferren is a research assistant for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.
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