Eleni Livingston and Rana Banankhah, both 17 years old, are voting members of their states’ board of education. Their experiences show the importance of student voices in policymaking.
The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
When 17-year-old Eleni Livingston was elected as the sole student member of Massachusetts’s state board of education, she worried about entering a world of stern whispers and political jargon. However, when she walked into her first meeting, her fellow board members welcomed her with firm handshakes and encouragement to speak her mind.
“On the board it can be intimidating to go in, as a young woman, as a teenager, into an environment like that and jump right in and start advocating for my peers,” Livingston said. “But I think that’s what’s been amazing.”
Like Livingston, Rana Banankhah of California serves on her state’s board of education, acting as the voice of over 6 million students. After making it through a process involving detailed essays, application questionnaires and an appointment by California Governor Gavin Newsom, the 17-year-old now works with experienced and widely respected policymakers ranging from professors to school district administrators.
“I’ve seen that our state board truly does respect you and treat you just as every other adult board member, which I really appreciate,” Banankhah said. “To be treated like an adult, even though I can’t even vote for [U.S.] president, was really eye-opening.”
Banankhah and Livingston are two of five teens in the country who are voting members of their states’ boards of education. They help decide high school graduation requirements, determine teacher qualifications and develop state student assessments. They also bridge the gender gap in education leadership—since women make up only 31 percent of school district chiefs.
Having women in policy making positions “does incorporate into the dialogue a perspective and a set of issues and priorities that would otherwise be absent,” said Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “And for young women in particular, it’s vital because they’re the next generation.”
Since July, Banankhah has focused her attention on increasing teen COVID-19 vaccination rates. Currently, 64 percent of Californians between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated. Her virtual outreach efforts include a vaccine information and promotion webinar hosted by California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond that reached over 500,000 homes. She also is working with the California Association of Student Councils to draft and pass legislation to create an advisory group for current and future state student board members, allowing for more teen involvement.
“Students have an extremely valuable perspective that none of the other board members have, which is one in which they’ve actually lived the policies that the board is passing,” Banankhah said.
Livingston serves on the budget committee and regularly promotes the funding of mental-health focused resources for students and professional development aimed at educating teachers on the signs of a student in distress.
Having young people on state boards promotes equity in education by allowing for direct student feedback, National Association of State Boards of Education President Robert Hull said in an interview with Ms. State boards are increasingly prioritizing student voices and Hull predicted that the number of states with student voting members will increase. Currently, Garren Hamby (Tennessee), Kevin Bokoum (Maryland) and Angelita Peña (Vermont) serve as the only other voting teens on state boards of education in the country.
“We all have different backgrounds,” Livingston said. “We all have different experiences. There’s never a perfect way to make sure that you’re including everybody, but it’s really important to try from an equity standpoint.”