End Education Without Representation
Recently the Tacoma Urban League hosted an education forum which, from an objective perspective, was flawed for a number of reasons, not the least of which included the fact that the moderator had already publically endorsed one particular candidate on stage, who just so happened to be positioned in a seasaw rotation that always gave him the benefit of hearing what three other school board candidates had to say about a particular issue before delivering his own well-crafted answer. But such gimmicks are routine to modern political theatre and hardly worthy of the first Melon article to be published by this writer in more than a year.
No, what made this forum truly upsetting for me was the response to a question offered by a 17 year old member of the audience, asking if any of the candidates would support lowering the voting age to allow students to participate in school board elections. The audience immediately erupted into laughter. The moderator, upon regaining his composure and wiping away a tear, turned to the candidates on stage and with a smile on his face and voice in his throat that somehow simultaneously seemed amused and nervous, said “do any of you wanna answer that?” An awkward pause followed, the candidates looked at each other, and again, the audience broke out into uncontrolled hysterics.
I could not believe what I was watching. Here was a sincere and valid argument for political enfranchisement from a politically aware American citizen, asked at a candidate forum sponsored by the Urban League (a national civil rights organization) and all but a few people in the room seemed to believe that this question even deserved an answer. Not even incumbent school director Kim Golding offered her opinion on this subject, despite the fact that for the past 6 years she has sat next to a dozen student representatives on the school board; representatives who, despite their age, inexperience, and lack of a vote, are nonetheless often able to contribute to board meetings by providing insight and perspective to a board whose youngest director is more than twice their age.
I have often lectured and lambasted people and policies that conflict with my belief that students should not be prevented from reaching their natural stages of maturity and, ultimately, adulthood. While America’s aging adolescents cheer that “40 is the new 20” America’s teenagers and now “tweenagers” continue to long for the day when they can stop studying (and paying for the privilege) and start proving themselves as capable adults. But there is one truth I cannot ignore.
While 16-year-olds have historically served as soldiers, bore children, and worked full-time jobs, there is no precedent (that I’m aware of at least) for them participating as enfranchised members of any democracy (though a few, like King Tut & Louis XIV who were absolute monarchs before hitting puberty). But then again, women’s sufferage was also unprecedented in the annals of democracy, and now we live in an age of serious female contenders for the White House.
This past year, Washington’s courageous young State Senator, the Honorable Scott White, heroically responded to constituents who work, pay taxes, largely drive national trends and styles and – in a select few cases – found multibillion dollar internet startups, but are then laughed at when they ask for a say in the administration of their schools. Senate Bill 5621 would lower the voting age in school board races to 14 for students currently enrolled in their school district. The bill quickly died in committee last year, and probably will not pass next year because the budget crisis will likely eclipse all other concerns.
However, given the economic woes of our school district, and past failures to pass bonds and even a levy back in 2007, it would seem to me that enfranchising those who are supposed to most directly benefit from this tax revenue would be a no-brainer for our school board members.
As to concerns that high schoolers cannot make mature, rational decision in the voting booth (if, in fact, we still had voting booths in Washington) the results from Tuesday’s Primary should prove, yet again, that neither maturity nor rationality has ever been a prerequisite to eligibility. In one school board race, 12.74% of the electorate voted for Betsy Elgar, a candidate who identified her priorities in the voter guide as “Saving the US Military Bases in our US Territories and Foss High School.” In another race, 20.36% voted for Kim Washington, even after she tried to get her name pulled from the ballot and did nothing as a candidate beyond submitting a picture and brief statement for the voter guide. Her numbers were enough to put her in second place, ahead of the competent incumbent and active candidate: Kim Golding. The fact that she was the only Black female in the race may explain her numbers, or perhaps the voters were confused by two “Kim”s on the ballot. However, the fact that Kim Washington’s numbers require explanation prove that her victory was not rational.