Before you start to navigate how to influence your community’s decision making process when it comes to education, it’s important to learn a bit more about the context for action in your local community. Every community contains slightly different players who hold different amounts of power when it comes to affecting education decision making. Below we’ve outlined some common entities that hold power to affect students' education.
It may be helpful to read the website of your school, school district and state board of education to understand who plays what role in your community. Past news coverage from local outlets might also give you a sense of where community members have tried to put pressure on in the past. Local community organizations often have a great sense of who holds power to make change. A trusted teacher at your school may also be able to sit down with you and help you understand who holds what power within your local education landscape. You can always sign up for a 1:1 meeting with a Student Voice team member by sending them a quick email. Together, we can make sure you’re prepared to navigate the decision making space in your community.
Your local school board typically has the most power to make decisions that affect your community and school directly and is the space students most often engage.
If you attend a traditional public school or public magnet school, your school likely exists within a local school district. Your school district makes decisions that affect many schools, including creating district-wide budgets, overseeing curriculum creation and execution, conducting professional development for teachers, principals and school staff, and supporting administration and leadership at each school within the district. Most school districts have a school board that is the primary local decision making body. These decisions are executed by a district office and school superintendent. Your local school board members may be elected or appointed. A quick search to your district website should be able to tell you more about how your school board members are chosen.
If you attend a public charter school, it likely exists within its own Local Education Agency (LEA), which means it has autonomy to make its own decisions. The local school district may have limited ability to make decisions about your school, or no ability at all. You can target the action steps detailed in this guide towards your own school’s decision makers. Your charter network may also have a decision making body that is local, regional or national. Your school’s website may provide you with more information about how to reach decision makers and if they have hours where they hear public commentary.
State boards of education are bodies of citizens that oversee statewide education decision-making, typically related to school accountability and assessment guidelines, graduation requirements and school staff and personnel qualifications. Every state board plays a slightly different role. Some are bodies of elected members, while some are appointed. The website of your state board of education should outline how you can get in touch with state board members about issues that are important to you.
The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) provides resources for state boards to advance equity in education. You can learn more about the role of state boards of education on their website.
Your state has an education leader or “state chief” who has power to affect decisions about schools on the state level. They may be called a State Superintendent of Education, a State Secretary of Education, a State Commissioner of Education, a State Superintendent of Public Instruction, or something else. They may be elected by voters, appointed by the governor, or appointed by state legislatures.
The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) supports state leaders across the country. You can view a full list of state leaders on their website to identify yours, and then visit that individual’s website to learn more about their specific role in your state.
It depends. Especially when it comes to issues about school budgets, mayor’s offices, city councils and state legislatures can often play a critical role in determining how resources are allocated in your community.
Because state governments are responsible for administering public schools in their state, they play an important role in education. Though school funding is often sourced through local taxes (most often property taxes), most states use statewide formulas to distribute funding. In addition, many states have a Department of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction or another similar office within the executive branch that proposes state legislation, sets graduation requirements, provides recommendations to teachers and administrators and more. State legislatures are responsible for passing state education laws related to teacher pay, school finance and resourcing and more.
Beyond guaranteeing equal access under the 14th Amendment and protecting students’ and teachers’ constitutional rights, the federal government’s role in education is limited to allocating money in the Congressional budget, distributing grants and providing recommended practices.
Many school boards allow any interested person, including students, to offer public comment at their meetings to express their opinion on issues within the school district. The process of giving a public comment to your school board is called testifying. Testifying is a great way to voice your concerns about your experiences in schools and ask your school board members to seek solutions.
Though every school board has different processes, here are some tips you can use to testify to your school board:
1. Prepare ahead. Find out when and where your school district’s school board meetings are held and the procedures for public comment. Do you need to sign up beforehand to comment? Is there a time constraint for commenting? This information is usually available on your school district’s website. If the website does not have a section labeled school board, it could also be called the Board of Trustees, Board of Education, or another similar term. On the day of your testimony, be sure to arrive early and well-dressed and sign up ahead of time.
2. Identify the issue. Testifying to your school board is a great way to express your concerns about issues in your school or community to school board members. What issues have you experienced or do you perceive to be a problem in your school? What change do you believe needs to be made? You can testify about any issue you care about that a school board can take action on, ranging from your history class’ curriculum to funding for after-school sports to a lack of mental health support services.
3. Research the issue. After you’ve identified the issue you’d like to testify to your school board about and how you’d like your school board to take action, research the issue to understand it better. Researching for a school board testimony doesn’t have to be like writing a report for English class! Rather, it can be reflecting on your own experiences in education, asking other students for stories about their experiences, or gathering facts and statistics about the issue you’d like to testify about.
It may be helpful to research what other schools have implemented on your issue or how the school board has taken action in the past on the issue. Understanding the history of your issue can allow you to consider possible consequences of changing existing policy and have arguments to counteract them. It also gives you an opportunity to thank the board members who have been advocates for the issues you care about.
Through your research, make sure you’re gathering evidence to support your position on your selected issue. This evidence can be either anecdotal (comprised of stories about your school experience) or concrete (comprised of facts, statistics or research about your selected issue).
4. Propose a course of action. Once you’ve researched the issue that you want to testify to your school board about, you can propose a course of action that the school board can take, which they can directly agree upon or reject and compromise on.
This course of action doesn’t have to be specific! It can be as simple as asking the school board members to host a follow-up meeting with students to discuss the issue or to convene a taskforce to work through possible policy solutions to the issue. If you’ve found research about or examples of action other school boards have taken, you can also propose something more detailed.
5. Write your testimony. Now that you’ve identified an issue you’re passionate about, found concrete and anecdotal evidence to support your position and proposed a possible course of action, write your testimony. Use confident, powerful language to attract the audience’s attention, but keep in mind that comments do not have to sound formal. In fact, your testimony will be more effective if you use first person, convey emotion, and share your personal experience. Write in the way you can imagine yourself speaking—but be respectful! Make sure that if your school board has a time limit for each testimony, that your prepared comments will fit within that length of time.
In general, you should begin your testimony by stating the issue you’re focusing on, then support your position with the evidence you’ve gathered, and end your speech with your call to action.
You can also use this specific format: Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now. Start with your own story—a short bio about yourself and why you’re testifying. Then, discuss the issue that the population you’re representing is facing using the evidence you’ve gathered. This will lead you into your conclusion, a call to action or reason to make change now.
Here is an example of a testimony template you can use:
My name is _____ and I’m a (grade level) at _____ school. I’m here today to discuss (issue). I’ve personally struggled with (issue) when (story, anecdote, description of your personal struggle, etc).
I’ve seen and discussed (issue) with my peers at my school and others throughout the district. We believe it should be addressed because (evidence about the issue, including anecdotal information about students’ experiences, statistics, or other analysis).
I believe (issue) must be changed by (suggestions of ways to address the issue at hand, like starting a taskforce to tackle the issue or making more specific policy suggestions).
Here are examples of students testifying to their school boards which you can reference:
6. Stay calm and confident! Your school board members are elected to serve you, so they should want to hear what you have to say. Your opinion and experiences are valuable! Stay calm and relaxed—you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. You got this!
2017-18 Student Voice Ambassadors Jared Stefanowicz, Jaylan Scott, Kaleb Cook, Allison Tu and Odalis Aguilar contributed to this section. You can learn more about Student Voice’s programs and apply to join here.
Creating a petition about an issue you care about within your school can be an excellent way to show that there is popular support for taking action within your community. A petition to a school board includes a statement about an issue and a list of proposed ways for the school board to take action on the issue. A petition can be formatted like a testimony to your school board would be—with a story about why the issue matters to you, anecdotal or concrete evidence about why addressing the issue is important and possible solutions or action that you seek.
A popular website that many students and organizers have used to host their petitions on is Change.org (note though that Change.org is a for-profit organization). Some school districts or state governments may also have initiative processes that constituents can use to impact policies.