Students close to getting voting power on WA education board

A bill inspired by student outreach would give authority to two students. It passed out of both chambers of the Washington Legislature this session.

Pavan Venkatakrishnan

Pavan Venkatakrishnan, a student board member on the Washington State Board of Education and a junior at Interlake High School, on Feb. 25, 2022, in Bellevue. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

When it comes to giving student advocates more say in public school systems, school leadership is all on board, so to speak. The 16 members of the Washington State Board of Education unanimously supported Senate Bill 5497, which will give student members of the board a vote in the decisions that impact their peers across the state. 

The student vote bill passed out of the House on March 1 and was sent to the governor for his signature.

“Students are the ones that are experiencing the day-to-day repercussions of the policies that we are making, so we want to make sure their voice is heard,” said Bill Kallappa, chair of the Washington State Board of Education.

The bill extends voting authority to the board’s two student members, giving them a more substantial say on educational policy decided by the board, including adopting policy to oversee academic success in schools and making changes to graduation requirements. The legislation is expected to go into effect in early summer.

Student board member McKenna Roberts believes this legislation will center student voices on the board, giving them more of a say in those policy decisions

“If you want kids to be passionate about advocacy, you have to show them that what they’re passionate about matters, and that their voice matters,” said Roberts, a senior at Okanogan High School in Central Washington.

State Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, recalls that students didn’t have much influence over educational policies during her eight years as a school board director in the Federal Way School District. Wilson decided to sponsor the bill after being approached by the board’s current student members about the idea. She believes that adults often overestimate their understanding of schools and education, while current students often have some of the most valuable knowledge.

“Until we listen to young people who have been impacted by our education system, both positively and negatively, we are not going to hit our mark,” Wilson said. 

The bill passed despite moderate pushback from Republicans in the Legislature. One concern from the opposition did impact the final bill. Amendments in the Senate added language that would ensure that student board members abstain from votes that directly impact their own graduating class and graduation requirements, ensuring that student board members cannot simply vote for their own interests — although, as Wilson pointed out, the vast majority of policy implementations are done so for the graduating class four years down the road.

State Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, who spoke against the bill at a Feb. 22 House Education Committee meeting, said he doubted high school students have the life experience necessary to carry a vote on the board, a concern shared by many of his party members. Steele was ultimately one of 38 no votes in the House, countering 60 in favor.

According to both student and adult board members, the high school members provide unique insight on the lives of students. Mental health is the board's forefront concern, particularly because of how isolated many students have been during the pandemic. Kallappa believes that the drop in state test scores cannot be effectively addressed until the mental health of students improves.

“If we’re not, as a system, willing to tackle the problems our students are facing from a mental health perspective, we’re not going to get back to the academic standards that we had prior to COVID,” said Kallappa.

Roberts, the student representative for Central Washington, echoes that concern. Roberts testified before the Legislature in support of House Bill 1834, sponsored by the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, which would excuse absences for students taking a mental health day. The bill passed unanimously out of the House on Feb. 2 and the Senate on March 1.

Roberts sees her main role on the board as representing the needs and interests of her smaller, rural school in Okanogan. One of the issues Roberts has raised to the board is the limited mental health resources at her school, with school counselors typically tied up with student schedules and college advising.

Pavan Venkatakrishnan, the board’s Western Washington representative and a junior at Interlake High School in Bellevue, praised access to counselors and mental health resources in his school and neighboring districts. 

Both student board members see the extension of voting access in future years as an important way to value the experiences of students.

“Though adults are generally aware of the issues impacting students, students have some of the most important insight into educational systems that do and don’t work,” said Venkatakrishnan. “Adjusting to this input can sometimes improve students' lives.”

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