OPINION: Kentucky House Bill 161 would give students the seat at the table they deserve


Kyle Glenn

This bill would allow students to sit in on committees related to their education. Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.

Isabella Edghill

How can students have a hand in shaping their school experience? Student Senate and Executive Council are two examples of ways Manual students can do this. Their effectiveness is limited to within the walls of their school. They cannot fully implement some great ideas without the approval of the district’s wider decision makers, namely the Board of Education. If a student has a bigger proposal, a stronger opinion, the best they can do currently is send an email to the superintendent or board members. But what if students themselves could have a direct hand in making the district level decisions that affect them every day? What if students could actually provide input and enact changes in their school that would better benefit all students?

Enter House Bill 161, a bill that would enable Kentucky students to hold their schools accountable and ensure students have a seat at the education policy decision-making table. The bill, filed in the current legislative session, is bipartisan and was introduced by Representatives Lisa Willner (D, Jefferson Co.) and Killian Timoney (R, Fayette and Jessamine Co.) and George Brown Jr. (D, Fayette Co.). It was drafted by members of The Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT), an independent, statewide, organization with a mission to co-create more just and democratic Kentucky schools. The bill would add non-voting student members to every district school board in the state. 

Student representation is crucial for many reasons. Not only do students perform better in school when they feel their voices are heard, but increasing student representation would also strengthen the policy feedback loop by ensuring every decision by the board incorporates student perspectives. Additionally, it could increase student trust in the administration by conveying to students that their voices matter and that adults care what they have to say. If students have a hand in the policies being created for them, they could be more likely to comply with them. And finally, it could help improve two-way communication across the district, whereby the district could have an additional messenger and students could have an additional representative to lift their voices.

As school’s primary stakeholders, students are uniquely impacted by the decisions school boards and leaders make, and yet they have no input when these decisions are created. Having a student representative would ensure that students have a seat at the table when decisions about and for them are being made. There would also be a sense of accountability as the student board member would have to comply with and experience policies made under their watch. This is a layer of accountability that even adult board members do not have.

“Students can bring a unique and vital perspective on what’s working and what’s not working in our schools. From my role on the state board of education, I’ve seen firsthand how students can notice problems and propose solutions that adults can sometimes miss,” Joud Dahleh told KSVT. 

Dahleh is the Kentucky Board of Education’s student representative and a junior at the Ignite Institute in Boone County. 

Students understand their school intimately. They know what problems schools and students face and what needs to be done to fix those problems. As stakeholders, students are the best people to be making decisions surrounding school improvement. 

Co-sponsor of HB 161 Representative Killian Timoney greatly summed up the importance of stakeholders being present where the decision making is happening. “If we had an agriculture board without a farmer on it, if we had a police board without a policeman on it, if we had a bar association without an attorney on it, it wouldn’t float,” Timoney said on the House Floor.

In many ways, a student representative is also better positioned to relay student feedback than adult board members because of their active relationships among their peers and proximate age. 

“As a former school board member, I believe that students should be at the center of every policy decision. I also believe that those most affected by policy should have a seat at the table,” Representative Lisa Willner, the bill’s other co-sponsor, said. 

HB 161 is not a radical idea. 31 States report having student board members as a local option and at least 10 Kentucky School Districts already have students serving on school boards (JCPS not among them). The role of the student board member outlined in the bill mirrors that of the student board member serving on Kentucky’s State Board of Education (KBE). Kentucky appointed their first student board member to KBE in October of 2020. The seat on the KBE, currently held by Dahleh, provides a model for this type of student representation. While one student may not share the same opinion as every other student, their place among decision makers is still crucial to elevating student voice as a whole.

Some may question whether this student seat on local school boards needs to be mandatory if it is already an option. Mandating the student board member position would ensure that all districts offer the opportunity. It would also allow districts to scale up the training student board members would receive. It is unfair to assume a student representative automatically enters the role with the skills and disposition needed to be successful. That’s why the bill would have the same training requirements for the student representative that are required for adult board members.

Adding student representatives could help make school boards more reflective of the communities they serve, potentially in terms of race and ethnicity and certainly in terms of age. Additionally, in the era of “parent rights”, it is important to remember that parents are not the only family voice that school boards should be listening to. Enabling students to serve on school boards is one way to hold our schools accountable to all of the key stakeholders.

If passed, each district would get to determine the election procedures. The student will be an elected sophomore or junior attending a public school within the district who will serve on the board during their junior or senior year of high school. The student member would be a non-voting member. Their vote will be cast and recorded in the minutes, but will be non-binding towards the final decision. And finally, the Student Board Member terms will begin on June 1 and end on May 31.

With all of the proposed changes going on in JCPS right now, from new start times to the implementation of metal detectors in schools, wouldn’t it be great for someone who lives through these changes to get a seat at the decision-making table?