For centuries, students have been agents of social change, their passion and idealism forming a critical part of the historical landscape; a lesson that, in education, teachers and administrators ignore at their peril. But figuring out how best to appropriate student interests raises difficult questions. Do students belong on school boards? Should they participate in budgetary evaluations and contract negotiations? Are teenagers—who can’t vote in governmental elections or legally purchase cigarettes—equipped to make long-term decisions about their education, or will they inevitably sink to the lowest common denominator? These are issues policymakers have battled for decades, most recently in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, where students now have a voice on their local school board.
Earlier this month, after a series of protests, including one in which participants placed hundreds of empty desks on a street in downtown Los Angeles to represent the number of kids who drop out each week, the L.A. Unified School district accepted a petition to give students a non-voting seat on the school board. The protesters had wanted a peer-elected member. But instead, by a 5-1 vote, the board of education approved an amendment giving superintendent John Deasy 120 days to decide how a student member will be chosen, and the role he or she will fill.