Let the Kids Rule School Boards

In the Midst of a Bipartisan Attack on Their Educational Rights, It’s Time for Young People to Fight Back

Grownups are fighting to control what gets taught and said in schools, and students get caught in the crossfire. Columnist Joe Mathews recommends letting kids control their educations, for a change. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

California kids, do you follow the news about the culture wars over the boards that oversee your schools?

If you do, you’ll see these wars portrayed as political contests between groups that want to take education in different directions. You’ll see reports about loud conflicts between progressives and right-wingers, and fights between parents’ groups and teachers’ unions.

But you won’t hear much about the role of students in these debates. Because there isn’t one. School boards are meetings of adult politicians; kids are rarely even present (much less heard) in those loud and angry rooms.

You might think not having to listen to grownups yelling is a good thing. It’s not. There’s an old adage in politics: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

That’s cynical, but so are your parents and teachers. For all their performative battles over your schools, the adults in your lives share a unity of purpose in the education wars.

They all want to trample on your already very limited rights as children. And they want to prevent you from having control over your own education.

They just attack from different flanks.

On the right, conservative parents and their political allies seek to take away your right to read what you want. Groups with Orwellian names—like Moms for Liberty—are pursuing bans on books and curricula. (Note to you kids: “Orwellian” refers to George Orwell, the sort of satirical author that grown-ups, right and left, are trying to keep out of your hands.)

Now, you may not care about books, but their censorship influences more than just what you read. Banning books limits what your teachers can teach, and which of your questions they can answer. The right is particularly interested in limiting what teachers can tell you about the most hot-button topics, like race and sex. Maybe you think parents are just trying to protect you, but this sort of paternalism always leads to the erosion of more rights.

There’s an old adage in politics: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

The right is also demanding that teachers violate your privacy and make official reports, including to your parents, if you dare deviate from old-fashioned gender norms. I know, it’s crazy. Figuring out your identity is hard enough, in this world of gossipy classmates and social media, without your teachers being required to inform on you. Why can’t these uptight adults live their own lives, and stop inserting themselves into yours?

Now, the political left, to its credit, is fighting back against these intrusions on your privacy. But they have their own ways of trying to limit your freedoms and your educational horizons.

It was groups on the left—especially teachers’ unions and Democratic politicians—who violated your right to an education by closing the schools for more than a year during the pandemic. Those same state and local leaders haven’t done enough to help you recover the learning you lost in the pandemic. Some even maintain that learning loss is a myth, even though most of you are testing below grade level and many of you are chronically absent from school.

And inside your schools, the left is determined to keep you on their prescribed path by limiting your ability to study what you want. Progressive politicians defend outdated traditional school curricula, while adding new requirements that match their political preferences—like labor rights or ethnic studies. Meanwhile, schools rarely provide the technology courses that many of you want. Unbelievably, just 40 percent of high schools in California, home of Silicon Valley, even offer computer science.

Maybe you think this is a budget problem. It isn’t. Spending on schools is way up, even as the number of students declines. It’s just that the new money ends up going to adults—teachers and administrators—and their salaries.

If you still think your teachers, school administrators, and elected officials respect you, let me tell you a story that will disabuse you of that notion.

During the pandemic, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified Schools faced litigation charging that he was violating students’ right to a good education. He responded by saying that students only had the right to a free education. It didn’t have to be good or even useful.

Perhaps even more shockingly, California’s leaders and schools have embraced the superintendent’s position as their own. In fact, the state’s political and educational establishment is opposing a ballot initiative that would give you the right to a “high-quality” education.

Don’t believe it? Here is language from this measure they oppose: “The state and its school districts shall provide all public school students with high-quality public schools that equip them with the tools necessary to participate fully in our economy, our society, and our democracy.”

The establishment says that you, the students, have to accept whatever dismal education, and whatever meager rights, they choose to give you. In arguing against the initiative, they have claimed that a requirement of “high-quality” education will produce a barrage of lawsuits and demands from you.

For your sake, I sure hope they are right.

Now is the time for students to go on the offensive. If adults chastise or punish you for being combative, you can laugh in their faces—and remind them how loud and combative they are being in their own educational wars.

You could try a one-day-a-week student strike, like the climate activist Greta Thunberg, and spend that day trying to find lawyers to sue your school districts. (Lawsuits, and their costs, are what really move school administrators.)

An even better move would be to demand democracy from the Democrats who rule California. Students know more about how education works than most adults. Why shouldn’t you have the right, regardless of age, to vote and run in school board elections?

Indeed, school boards have been so captured—by teachers’ unions and parent groups, and all their conflicts—that there’s a strong case for turning school boards entirely over to students, who could check adult interests.

This may sound radical, but it isn’t. In other countries, teens have parliaments and councils, some with real powers. And even our state has a number of “democratic” schools—like Diablo Valley in Concord, and California Free School in Altadena—where students set schedules and curricula, and vote on how the campus is run.

Also, please remember that grown-ups like to say that you kids need to learn civics, even though no one provides much in the way of civics classes. Turning school boards and school governance over to kids would be the greatest civics lesson possible.

And it’d be far more educational than the current culture wars in our school boards.


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