Today the Iowa Department of Education (DE) tweeted the following:
But if you go look at the application announcement, it turns out that the student participant on the State Board of Education is a non-voting member. So much for having a real voice… [sigh]
I’m not trying to pick on DE; the non-voting status of the student is encoded in Iowa statute. But it’s worth noting that, along with student councils in schools and student representatives to school boards, these types of positions mostly seem to be a way for us adults to feel good about ourselves for including students. We pat ourselves on the back for ‘listening to student voice’ and point to the token representation to say, “See? We care!” when in actuality it’s just a sop, a meaningless thing given for appeasement instead of truly honoring needs or meeting demands: “Look, you get to sit with us and listen! We might even occasionally let you speak!”
As adults we’re not willing to give students actual decision-making responsibility. We’re not willing to give them power and authority over anything that’s really meaningful. Instead, we give them these artificial input opportunities and then exercise our freedom to completely ignore them – because they’re minors, you know, and don’t really know what’s best for them or the organizations in which they’re embedded – thus patronizing and demeaning the very youth that we’re supposedly honoring.
If we want to give students real voice and real agency, that means providing them with actual decision-making power (e.g., a vote) and something meaningful upon which to decide. What do students learn from tokenistic, inauthentic, powerless participation opportunities?
I challenge us to try this locally. Let’s give a group of students majority voting power over a school’s behavior and discipline policies. Or what courses are offered. Or the daily schedule. Does this scare us to death? If so, what does that say about us?
We’ve never been comfortable about giving a voice to the voiceless masses. After all, isn’t this similar to how grassroots politics works? A few representatives have the job of assessing their community, deciding what the community’s needs are, and then voicing their ideas to those who can make them happen. That’s how it works in theory anyway, but too often the voices of the people – or students – represented become drowned out by personal agendas and biased opinions. The big difference is that students don’t even have a choice in who represents them.
The “voiceless” will have a say in how the money for schools is spent right about the time they start paying taxes … i.e., become adults themselves.
They will get to participate in the decision-making process when they show that they can make responsible decisions.