LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Seeking a voice for students on Delaware school boards

A representative democracy is based upon the idea that the people who are subjected to a government can be fairly represented in it by running for and holding an elected office. While this principle has been properly implemented at the state and federal levels, it could be improved at the local level: namely school districts.

The boards of education that govern these districts are charged with the responsibility of crafting education policy for their community’s public schools. Everyone’s interests appear to be represented on them — citizens elect board members and the superintendent serves as a delegate for schools’ faculty — except the students; they are legally obligated to attend school but often have to voice their concerns about education through an intermediary, such as a teacher or parent.

To remedy this problem, I urge the Caesar Rodney School District to allow for a student representative to sit on its board of education.

The movement to involve students in the creation of education policy can be traced back to California during the 1940s. It gained momentum after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) recognized that young people retained their constitutional rights as citizens while they attended school. That same year, California created a permanent position for a student on its state board of education.

In the following 48 years, the number of students sitting on local school boards has increased in nearly every state. Today, some of the largest school districts in the country have students on their boards of education, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools.

There is precedent for this in Delaware. SoundOut, an education consulting firm, reports that the state’s Department of Education encouraged school boards to have student members in 1972. It found that two of the 19 local boards in Delaware had student members as of 2012. One of them is the neighboring Capital School District. A nonvoting student member sits on its school board. The adult members choose him or her annually — though I believe that a student election would foster good citizenship and be more democratic.

Even the Caesar Rodney School District itself appears to have had plans for adopting this. Subsection “IBB” of “Section J: Students” in the table of contents of its Board of Education Policies is labeled “Student Member of School Board.” This subsection is mentioned three times throughout the policies. But when I search for the actual text of JIBB, the document skips from file JIBA to JIC. Obviously, the district intended for a student to sit on its board of education when the policies were originally adopted and forgot to implement a program.

To fix this, I propose a two-step solution. First, the board of education should amend its policies so that it defines the responsibilities of a student member. Then, the principal of the Caesar Rodney High School should be empowered to implement a procedure through which students can directly elect their representative.

Opponents of my proposal may argue that adolescent students are too impatient or shortsighted to create informed opinions on policies that, at times, involve hundreds of employees or millions of taxpayer dollars. As a graduate of the Caesar Rodney School District, I can attest that there are students with the intelligence and maturity to handle such a weighty responsibility.

One of my friends served as the student representative for the school board of the Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia — a school district that serves a greater number of students than the entire state of Delaware. He has often said that this experience was an integral component of his education and believes that such positions are necessary for crafting more impactful policies.

Having student members on local boards of education is a standard practice [in] many school districts across the country. I believe that the Caesar Rodney School District should pursue this worthy goal in order to create a more perfect government in which everyone’s voice can be fairly represented.

Liam O’Connor
Princeton University

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