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National Opinion

On Providing Students a Seat at the Table

Assembly Bill 1858—The California Youth Empowerment Act—could dramatically improve the culture of education in California Public Schools. It puts action behind the concept of student voice.

This piece of legislation, as reported in January, aims to establish the “California Youth Empowerment Commission”, a panel of 24 students between the ages of 14 and 25 who would serve as advisors to state officials on issues related to education policy in the state of California. The teenagers and young adults who make up this advisory body would be appointed by the governor and serve two year terms. Half of the team’s members “must have experienced juvenile incarceration, youth homelessness, the child welfare system, or a disability.” 

California State Assembly member Robert Rivas authored this act in hopes of pursuing statewide education policy reform that connects student voices directly to legislators and prominent executives, such as Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond and Governor Gavin Newsom. The goal is to focus policy makers’ attention to efforts that would  incorporate the incredible diverse backgrounds of California students into public school funding appropriations, core curriculum standards, and other facets of education policy.

Bay Area native Olivia Sally ‘24 discussed her experiences advocating for the passage of this bill in an interview with The Politic. She was invited by friends whom she had worked with on Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign to organize in support of AB-1858. Sally explained, “after spending hours at Oakland Youth Commission meetings, [connecting with] students from across the city, and leading my school group Dragon Democracy, I knew that a voice for underrepresented groups was needed.” She continued by stating she believes all individuals have a voice, and “our world must allow opportunities for the silenced to be heard.” AB-1858 is a powerful youth-focused manifestation of that sentiment. 

Sally’s career thus far in civic-involvement spans by-lines in Teen Vogue, projects with NPR, and involvement on several local, state, and national election campaigns—most recently as a remote intern for the Connecticut House Democrats. She asks Boards of Education in her home state of California and across the nation this question: “Are you representing the spectrum of [all students’] backgrounds in the educational decisions that will determine our nation’s future? That can uplift and empower all people? That can make your state better? If not, reevaluate.”

As for Sally’s homebase, San Francisco has a youth empowerment commission of its own—an entity that has supported the passage of AB-1858 from the start. These local and state efforts quite literally provide a seat at the table for students of California public schools, and it’s a standard that state governments across the U.S. must look to follow and uphold within their respective Boards of Education. Establishing student-specific councils, commissions, and positions to help legislators understand the perspectives of young people who directly experience the output of their decisions is essential to developing greater equity in American public education.

Other states have followed through with similar programs. In Kentucky, high school students in grades 10-12 may apply to serve on the Commissioner of Education’s Student Council. With representatives from each of Kentucky’s seven Board of Education districts, the state’s School for the Blind, and the School for the Deaf, students are able to provide feedback to the Kentucky Department of Education in regards to efforts that truly benefit the youth of the commonwealth. 

In Massachusetts, a similarly-structured entity called the State Student Advisory Council (SSAC) helps to decide what educational policies passed at the state level would best promote students’ rights. According to the MA Department of Education, “America’s democratic system is rooted in the belief that all citizens who are affected by the system have a voice. The SSAC communicates student views to those who make decisions about education.”

New York City public schools’ also allow for student leaders within each of the city’s respective Borough Student Advisory Councils (BSACs) to meet, discuss, and work together to meet the needs of New York high school students. Five members and two alternates are selected from each BSAC to report to the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council. Alongside the Chancellor and Senior Leadership Team of the city’s Department of Education, BSAC members discuss issues that  high school students grapple with everyday in the city.

These city- and state-wide advisory boards that actively involve students in policy discussions are just a few examples of their success, but these programs must be legitimized on a national leave to truly advance towards equity in American education. We’ve always been comfortable with the idea of institutional student councils and government. However, even student body presidents, VPs, and other officers have shifted away from being the representative voice for their classes and school at the decision-making table. Instead, planning school events, organizing fundraisers, and growing student life and involvement are now the priorities of these student leaders—especially at the high school level, where students are in relatively well-informed positions to advocate for school policy that accounts for their experience. As they’ve demonstrated their capacity for effective leadership through the organization of such student affairs, it only makes sense to institute state and large-city student empowerment boards to ensure active young people who want to see positive change are able to directly represent to legislators and administrators the perspectives that are often overlooked but must be valued just the same.

Joshua Dantzler, a long-time activist and education justice advocate with the organization Student Voice, shared his story being the sole student representative in an official policy-constructing meeting in an November 2019 opinion piece for The74Million. He continues by describing this experience at the National Youth-Serving Institutions stakeholder meeting, sponsored by the youth liaison at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., as a weight that one student alone cannot and should not be obliged to carry.

Dantzler wrote, “Not only did I feel immense pressure to speak up, even on topics which I had not personally experienced, simply to remind the adults of the power of student voice, I was uncomfortable knowing that mine was the only voice in these critical conversations. The many students who weren’t included were being actively silenced.” 

Not only do these programs uplift marginalized voices, but they also ensure that transparency and accountability are key components of decision-making when it comes to public education policy. By involving empowered, outspoken young leaders in the advising and decision-making process, legislators will be less inclined to delegitimize or defund components of education deemed essential by those students.

 However, to ensure the positive impacts of student advisory councils will reach young people of all ages and backgrounds, it’s not enough to simply establish this opportunity and hope the right individuals follow up. One key issue to address is simply ensuring the knowledge of joining these policy-making forces is widely accessible, as often, students don’t find out about these incredible opportunities to invoke change until it’s too late. When applications are considered for these positions, especially, state programs must begin to launch massive awareness campaigns to all student demographics who are eligible for leadership position consideration. In places like Georgia, where all public school students in grades 7-12 can apply to join the state’s Student Advisory Committee, an essential facet of the program must be distributing the knowledge of this opportunity far and wide—in addition to showing students how essential their involvement is because of their unique backgrounds, and not in spite of them.