At first blush, it sounds like a harmless way to promote good citizenship — letting school kids as young as the sixth-grade vote for student members to sit on their local school board. But for property taxpayers and parents whose votes are being canceled out, the harm is very real. And now two lawsuits are challenging the practice in one Maryland county.
Two Howard County parents, Traci Spiegel and Kim Ford, filed a lawsuit after votes to reopen schools repeatedly failed.
“When we started watching the board of education meetings, every single vote about reopening plans ended in gridlock, 4-4 gridlock. And, we noticed that a student was part of that gridlock, a minor,” Spiegel said. Their attorney, Tony Conti, says the solution is obvious.
“If we eliminate the student member vote, then we get back to regular majority rule, 4-3. We’ll have a seven-member board, and as the statutes dictate, you only need four votes when the student member is disqualified,” Conti said.
According to the Baltimore Sun, 16 of 24 Maryland school boards do not allow students to vote. However, most school boards in the Baltimore region, like Howard County, allow binding votes to be cast by student board members.
And it’s an idea some are trying to bring to southeast Pennsylvania.
Last December, Philadelphia teenager Tatyana Roldan made headlines for an effort to have a say on the policies that determine her day-to-day instruction. Roldan was not successful, as both the city’s charter and state law prohibit students from having voting rights on a school board. Still, Roldan managed to get a hat tip from the Philadelphia Board of Education.
“The Board appreciates student-led efforts to make the Board more accessible to students across the city,” Board president Joyce Wilkerson said at the time. “We look forward to learning from these groups and continuing to improve on our practices.”
Janice Hatfield, Senior Communications Officer for the Board of Education, reiterated that position to Delaware Valley Journal.
While Roldan’s dream for students to have voting power and representation is still that, a dream, it is a reality for many students in Maryland. One of them is making headlines for voting to close schools. As a member of the Howard County, Maryland school board, honor student Zachary Koung has kept classrooms closed, and now some local parents are taking the issue to court.
The student member votes on most issues, but cannot participate in those involving school boundaries, selection of a superintendent, the budget, collective bargaining contracts, and discipline issues. The rules are silent on the student member’s standing on a vote to open or close schools.
The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) has also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court with an additional concern, arguing Howard County’s system illegally privileges some voters and punishes others.
“You can’t allocate political power where you give children more power than adults on a school board,” says PILF’s president and general counsel J. Christian Adams.
In Howard County’s system, student members are elected only by students attending public schools from grades six through 11. They must live in the county and be a public school student in 11th or 12th grade which, PILF says, is “a clear conflict of interest since they are directly impacted by the Board’s actions.”
“In America, you cannot give one group of people more votes based on population than similarly situated people, and that’s what they’ve done,” says Adams. “And the student member in this county was the deciding vote to keep schools closed.”
The concern is not new. Delegate Reid Novotny (R-District 9A) unsuccessfully pushed legislation to keep the student member from being the deciding vote. Novotny, who has a daughter attending virtual school in Howard County, agrees the current system leads to gridlock.
On behalf of the PILF, Adams also argues the board’s election and governance scheme violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by denying students in religious schools the right to vote. “If you go to Catholic school or religious school, you’re not allowed to participate in the election.”
Howard County declined a request for comment. The board of education states on its website that it “values the student perspective and supports opportunities for students to share their views and the views of their peers in meetings of the Board.”
Adams goes on to say this issue reaches far beyond Maryland. “Child voting is a big priority of some people.”
It’s not hyperbole. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) recently offered an amendment to an election reform bill that would have lowered the national voting age to 16. (It failed in the House).
In 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang also proposed lowering the voting age to 16. Yang is now considering a run for mayor of New York.
“Most Americans think [16 year-olds voting] is nuts, but obviously some Americans do not,” Adams said. “The question is whether we want people who are considered legal adults making political decisions or whether we want to turn our political system over to children.”
The PILF lawsuit is filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland Northern Division. A virtual hearing on Spiegel and Ford’s case was held in Howard County Circuit Court on Tuesday morning, the judge has not yet ruled.