State Leaders Are Turning to Students to Shape Education

Last year, when Micah Hill was a sophomore in high school, her guidance counselor gave her an application for Mississippi’s student representative program, which allows students to serve on the Mississippi State Board of Education.

Hill applied and after two interviews, she was selected as the state’s newest student rep. Since then, she’s represented students on the board and advocated for their interests.

State boards of education typically set statewide policies related to youth and schools, such as graduation requirements, qualifications for teachers and statewide accountability programs.

“We talk a lot about inequity in education and under-resourced schools,” Hill says, explaining that it’s important for the board to hear from the people living through these experiences—especially students. Hill says she’s grateful to be able to provide a unique perspective and to be a voice for students, who are often underrepresented when it comes to education policy. “The more diversity we have on the board, the more successful we’ll be.”

More than 33 states now have some level of student engagement, with over 400 students serving on state boards or state education agencies, according to an analysis from the National Association of State Boards of Education. That’s up from 25 states five years ago. Of the 33 states with some student involvement, two dozen have students who serve on state boards.

“There’s been a growing call for students to have a more active voice in their learning,” says Celina Pierrottet, a research and policy associate at NASBE. “Parents groups have even said, ‘Where are the students?’”

COVID-19 was one catalyst for the growth of student engagement, Pierrottet adds, as states realized they needed input from these crucial stakeholders.

Most adults haven’t experienced attending school during a pandemic, Pierrottet says, adding that adults have a lot to learn from students who experienced what the policy looked like on the ground. “They [students] have a very valuable voice in developing state plans for COVID recovery.”

Student engagement in state boards and councils varies by state. In some states, students are able to vote on board issues and serve on committees. In others, students shadow board members and give verbal input on policies that are being considered.

And the way states engage students and elevate student voice is still evolving. In Washington state, the governor recently signed a bill allowing student members of the board to vote on education policies, joining six other states. Pavan Venkatakrishnan, one of the student representatives in the state, lobbied lawmakers to pass the legislation to give students a stronger voice in education policy.

“We were having conversations with folks across the aisle and engaging about this bill,” Venkatakrishnan says. “The board has constantly tried to increase its engagement with students through interfacing with student groups, so this seemed like a really easy way to broaden the impact.”

Having students serve on the board is beneficial for the state, as it gives policymakers more intimate knowledge of how students are experiencing their education, but it also supports the individual student representatives. Some students bring specific passions and learn about new issues they care about as they serve. Liv Birnstad, a student representative on Washington, D.C.’s State Board of Education, says she was initially very interested in efforts to support LGBTQ+ students, and during her time on the board, she has developed an interest in literacy. “I didn’t realize before I started, this was something that needed to be addressed as heavily as it does in D.C.,” she says.

For some students, serving as a state representative might help grow or fulfill an interest in politics. Venkatakrishnan, along with serving on the state board, has worked on political campaigns and even floated a career in public office.

Even with the increase in student participation in education policy, 18 states lack any type of student engagement on their state boards. And some of the states that do involve student voice have barriers to involvement, such as grade point average requirements. In some cases, those are required by law, Pierrottet says. But those requirements might deter students who have valuable perspectives but are not academically high-achieving in a school setting.

There are also challenges for the student representatives already holding positions. The time commitment often involves multiple meetings per month and is typically uncompensated. And working with adults in a professional setting is often a new experience for many students.

“It’s really nerve wracking to be a student representative,” Birnstad says. “All the other members are amazing. But it’s just me sometimes—or me and the other student representatives—with a bunch of people who are older than us and who have studied education formally.”

NASBE is trying to make that experience more manageable for student reps. In August, the association launched its six-month Student Engagement Collaborative program, with the goal of helping student representatives learn about board processes, policy analysis and action plans, while offering mentorship opportunities.

“We’re able to talk about certain problems and then create a policy and present it to our board, which I find really, really important,” says Hill, who is currently participating in the program. Hill also says it’s helpful because she can pass along what she learns to her peers and future student reps.

Pierrottet says it’s important for students to not only have a seat at the table, but to have the support they need to be productive board members.

“[Students] are the primary stakeholders in education,” she says. “They have the most to gain and the most to lose.”