Trustees exist for school boards, and school boards exist for children and for young adults. Their policies and actions specifically affect students under the age of 18 but, unfortunately, it is only parents who have the luxury of deciding who will make these decisions. This should change: Municipalities should give students aged 16 and older the right to vote for school board trustee.
I have always believed that education should be a partnership between educators, parents, and students. In an attempt to develop and play an active role in this “partnership,” I became involved in student leadership by discussing current issues in education at local meetings at age 14, and I was elected as a student trustee on the Toronto District School Board , a role that I held for two terms, at age 16.
And while I, and many student leaders before me, did all that we could to engage young people in the decision-making process, few saw the merit of being involved due to the ageist culture that exists in public policy today. In essence, there is the belief that “if you are too young to vote, you are too young to be heard.”
Lowering the voting age for trustee elections is the first step in increasing youth citizenship and reducing youth apathy – and it makes the most sense, too. Unlike provincial or federal politics, educational politics affect all students under the age of 18, and their opinions are invaluable. Students are the only ones who can say, with conviction, what works and what does not in their classrooms. When it comes to policy, they know what would benefit their learning experience, and when it comes to trustees, they should know who would benefit their learning experience.
A trustee, like any politician, always has election or re-election at the back of his or her mind, and students can take advantage of this. If students were given the right to vote for their trustee, discussions in the boardroom would more significantly reflect the needs and concerns of the individuals actually in the classroom, as trustees would be politically obligated to work for the best interests of students, and not just those of parents.
Where we would see the real impact of a youth vote is where there exists a difference of opinion between parents and students. To name a few examples, this means a greater emphasis placed on fairly modern educational concepts, such as technology in our classrooms, as well as introduction and expansion of specialized programs, such as those in the fields of arts or sciences, simply because it is the students who see the true value.
Recently, the city council of Takoma Park, Md., voted to lower the municipal voting age to 16, becoming the first American city to do so – and this is not a foreign concept in Canada. In 2005, former Ontario Liberal MP Mark Holland tabled a private member’s bill to lower the voting age for federal elections in Canada to 16, keeping the minimum age of candidates at 18. Though the Bill did not pass, it formalized the concept and started a national conversation.
Both these motions were based on the premise that, given the right to vote, high-school students would become as, if not more, knowledgeable about local candidates and their platforms as their parents. With most youth having direct access to the Internet, they can readily see and read about all there is to know about a candidate, and with a direct stake in the outcome of the election, they would make an informed choice.
In fact, Student Vote, a not-for-profit organization that holds mock elections in elementary and high schools, has data to prove that students would make this informed choice. Before the last federal election, 563,000 students under the age of 18 across the country casted their mock -ballots in this program and elected a Conservative minority with an NDP official opposition – a result that is almost identical to that of the actual election.
The question we must ask ourselves is this: If disenfranchised youth were given the right to vote in the trustee elections, would they vote in accordance with their adult counterparts, or would they influence the final outcome of the vote? We will not know until we give students this opportunity.
There is also a larger issue at hand. As a system, we encourage youth independence and civic engagement. Unfortunately, we have an uninteresting, impractical mandated civics course in grade 10 that needs reform, while voter turnout rates for those aged 18-24 have been low in recent history. Lowering the voting age for trustee would give much more value to the teachings of civics class, and would send an important message to all youth about the value of civic engagement.
Today, I am 18 years old. I have recently graduated from high school and, though the election will no longer affect me, I have now been granted the right to vote for trustee. To me, this is very ironic. If you agree, it is time to do something about it.
Hirad Zafari is the President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, and a student trustee of the Toronto District School Board