A date has arrived that ambitious high school juniors need to know about right now: the application date for the student member position on the California State Board of Education. Representing nearly six million students, this is the most powerful role that a high school student can play in California government, and perhaps in American government. It's not an advisory position — it's a full seat at the table in the room where it happens.
Next year, the job could be yours — but only if your application arrives by 5pm on Friday. Do it.
I had the honor of serving in this role in 2020-21. Next year, the job could be yours — but only if you apply. Do it. Even if you don't get the position, the application process alone provides countless opportunities to help your community and to grow as an individual. After applying, you begin to think more critically about the education system you are a part of and how you can help improve the lives of students around you.
I first got involved in leadership in the California education system as a junior, when I served as a Student Representative on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District's Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) Committee. There, I witnessed the importance of student voice in the decision-making process and gained valuable insights about the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) — a topic I later wrote about in my application for the State Board position. I cannot stress enough the value of this experience.
Apply now to represent 6 million students.
The more people who take interest in speaking up for better education in California, the more we will grow as a state. Our 6 million students have many perspectives that need to be heard and considered. A state with such diversity demands an education system that values every student’s talents and needs.
My predecessor, Brenna Pangelinan, (now at Brown University) helped me understand how distantly the voices of students are heard in California. It doesn't have to be that way. The student position on the State Board is far from the only formal role for student representation, at least on paper. More than 450 school districts in California include students in grades 9-12. Every one of them should have a student representative on its board.
But do they? There's no way to know. School boards operate in the public eye, and they are required to list their members on their website, but very few list their student representative. There is no straightforward way for student reps to find one another, much less connect and learn from one another.
Effectively preparing student leaders for a seat at the table in hundreds of California school districts will require a much better, bigger approach. Michaela Klein Weinstein, now a student at Wesleyan, served as a student representative for the board of Albany Unified School District. She suggested a natural sequence that could and should be made more powerful. Each school is supposed to include students in its site council. She suggested that high schools should invite students to serve on their site council as freshmen and sophomores in order to intentionally create a talent pipeline: as juniors and seniors they can be well-prepared to serve as members of school boards, county boards, and regional PTA boards.
The Leadership Timeline for ambitious student leaders in California
Prior to high school
Serve in your ASB or student council, or in other leadership roles where you can listen and learn.
9th and 10th grade
1) Serve in your school's site council, ELAC, or PTSA board, along with ASB office or other roles at your school.
1) Serve on your district school board, on a district task force, or in leadership of a significant student organization beyond your own school.
2) Earn your Ed100 graduate certificate if you have not already done so.
3) As you begin your junior year, apply for the student position on the State Board of Education.
Serve in a leadership role beyond your own school district. Examples include the State Board of Education, District PTA boards, County boards of education, and state commissions (such as those identified by a CASC working group in 2019.)
To be eligible for the student position on the State Board of Education, you need to be an 11th grade student enrolled in a California public school (traditional or charter).
Get three letters of recommendation, now.
To be a contender, you need to act right now. Complete the application and refine it. You need to include letters of recommendation together with your application, so make your asks right away. You'll need to compile all of your materials into a single PDF and send it as a single email, which must be received by 5:00 PM on September 21.
Note: some teachers may be surprised that they need to send the recommendation to you, not to the State Board. This is different from how college applications work. Time will fly, so start now.
This is an important job, and there's a lot to know. Some speed-reading is in order. The lessons on Ed100.org are the fastest way to learn about the education system, broadly and quickly, so sign up and at least skim through them all. Earn your certificate as an Ed100 graduate and remember to include it on your resume. Visit EdSource.org, the state's de facto news source of record for education — it can give you a deeper understanding of issues that are currently abuzz. Look at the notes from the Ed100 Academy to help develop your ideas about what issue you want to write about in your application essay.
You should plan to attend the SABE conference November 5-8. The State Board of Education will cover the conference costs if you advance to the next step as a candidate for the position, so it might cost nothing to try. Even if you don't advance as a candidate, if you can make it to the conference you will find it inspiring and informative. (Sophomores and freshmen: take note!)
And of course you should examine the website of the State Board of Education. Watch some video footage of the meetings. Read the agenda. Sign up for emails. Browse the meeting materials — members of the Board have a lot of homework for each meeting.
The student position on the State Board of Education is not the only opportunity for high school students to become authentically involved in education leadership. Since 2018, California law has required school districts to include a student member on their board, if petitioned by enough students. Before you start a petition for your district, do your homework. Has the issue already been considered? What happened? Who was involved? You will want to make sure the measure is well-crafted.
Student leaders in California are strangely isolated from one another. There is no statewide roster of student representatives, for example, or even a survey of which district boards have student representation. Few school districts list their student representative on their web page.
In addition to the SABE conference, you might want to participate in SABLE, a legislative conference for student leaders that will be held January 8-10. This conference builds on the work begun at the SABE conference, but focuses on the legislative process. These conferences are a fascinating way to learn about real government at an entirely different level. Though targeted at juniors and seniors, sophomores and freshmen who attend these conferences emerge with ideas and connections that prepare them to have an impact far beyond their own school.
Many PTA organizations are actually PTSAs — the "S" stands for "Students." These organizations create opportunities for student leadership and governance at the school site level and beyond. The California State PTA Board of Managers is an example of a PTA organization that involves students in its governance.
CASC and CASL are two organizations that organize student leadership training programs and events including summer leadership programs. Other youth organizations that support student involvement in civics include GENup, ACLU of Southern California, Californians for Justice, CSBMA, the Black Youth Leadership Project, YMCA, and Junior State.
It can be challenging for students to get involved in real government for a simple reason: real work happens on school days and during school hours, even during a pandemic. To get involved in real leadership, you'll have to miss some school. Education-related conferences, events and meetings fit well within the state guidelines for an excusable absence, but you'll need to obtain permission to miss school and make up the school work you miss.
Know of any other real government roles for high school students? Add a comment to this post!
Please help spread the word quickly about the student position on the State Board. California's students deserve great representation.
— Zaid Fattah, with thanks to Brenna Pangelinan, Michaela Klein Weinstein and Jeff Camp.
[editor's note: Zaid is now a student at Yale.]
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