“Challenge the status quo”: Unit 5 Board of Education needs student advisor [opinion]

Democracy, representation, and self-government are timeless American ideals. These are principles that have fueled some of our country’s proudest moments — the colonies declaring their independence; the ratification of the 15th Amendment, securing voting rights for African American men; passing the 19th Amendment, establishing women’s right to vote. 

Thanks in part to the struggle to achieve these freedoms, Unit 5 parents had the opportunity to elect three members to the Unit 5 Board of Education on April 6.

The newly elected members will play an essential role in decisions like the allocation of district resources. But, while the Board’s decisions most directly impact Unit 5 students, they have no direct say in electing the decision-makers. 

In each local election, a minority of Unit 5 students, those 18 or older, are eligible to vote. These students have the power to elect Board of Education members to serve a four-year term, but those few, empowered students will leave the district in two short months. This leaves the Unit 5 student body of over 13,000 students without any real representation, without a voice. 

While minors can not legally represent themselves by voting, Illinois state law provides for a student member to serve on the Board of Education in an advisory role. To fairly represent the group most impacted, there must be a student member on the Unit 5 School Board. 

By appointing a highly qualified student advisor to the Board in a non-voting role, the Unit 5 Board of Education could grant students true representation. A student advisor would provide student perspectives and concerns on the district’s education policies — policies that directly impact students each and every school day: Standards-Based Grading, course offerings, curriculum and textbook adoption…

NCHS alum Christi Wang (class of 2019) served as a member of the Illinois State Board of Education’s Student Advisory Council, offering her voice and perspective at the state level. However, students like Wang currently don’t have a real and meaningful way to play a role in Board decisions and policy locally.

Christi Wang (front row, third from the left) served as a member of the Illinois State Board of Education’s Student Advisory Council during the 2018-19 school year, offering student perspectives on educational issues.

Adding a student advisor to the Unit 5 School Board is not just feasible; it is necessary to provide student agency. Illinois is one of 20 states nationwide to allow students to serve on school boards, and across the country, school boards have implemented student members successfully. Elgin’s U46 district has had a student advisor on its Board for over a decade

At the state level, the ISBE’s Student Advisory council worked this year “to develop ways to respond to post-COVID 19 achievement gaps, create a diversity, equity and inclusion framework, and ensure the safety and emotional well-being of students.” If the State Board of Education and other school districts are taking advantage of an opportunity to empower students, there is no reason Unit 5 not to do the same.

Opponents of this idea might argue that students already have a means of representation through their guardians’ vote. This argument is dangerous, though, as it sounds very similar to that of the 19th Amendment’s opponents, who argued that a husband’s vote represented their wife. The school system has drastically changed in the last year, let alone in the decade-plus since most guardians last sat at a desk. But, it is not just parents and guardians of Unit 5 students who are eligible to vote in School Board elections — but any registered voter in the community. The truest form of representation comes from students themselves, whose understandings of school issues are first-hand. They are the real stakeholders in School Board elections.

While students don’t pay the property taxes that finance the district, just as a government is formed to serve its citizens, schools exist to serve the community. They ultimately accomplish this by serving students. Citizens of the government have the opportunity to vote or run for office themselves. Students deserve to have the privilege to represent themselves too. How can Unit 5 achieve its mission of “educating each student to achieve personal excellence” without offering students a direct and meaningful way to participate in the decisions that make that possible?   

The Unit 5 Board of Education must implement the necessary policy to allow for a student advisor to the School Board to “foster and encourage a culture of involvement and collaboration within [its] students, [its] schools and [its] community.”