Students can now serve on the Orange County Board of Education

A new law allows California high school students to become representatives on their county boards of education

Students can now serve on the Orange County Board of Education
The seal of the Orange County Board of Education.

Students could soon be sharing the dais with trustees on the Orange County Board of Education.

On July 1, 2023, California Assembly Bill 824 took effect, allowing student representatives to serve on county boards of education. Before, students could only serve on their local school district’s board of education. 

For example, Joelle Kaiser, a senior attending Los Alamitos High School serves as the current student representative on the Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education. 

Now, certain students attending a high school under the jurisdiction of the Orange County Board of Education can petition to be its student representative.

“All of us on the board have children,” said Mari Barke, five-year member on the OCBE, “so I feel like we might get a little bit of a student perspective. But the more information we have the better, so to see it through the lens of students is great.”

In addition to being able to give reports at meetings, the student board member would have preferential voting rights. That means the student board member or members could state their opinions and preferences on open-session agenda items before the elected trustees vote. However, the student’s vote would not count toward the final numerical outcome. 

This is already the case in the Capistrano Unified School District, Orange County’s largest, where the student board member can cast preferential votes on matters related to students that are not “subject to closed session discussion,” their website says. 

Troy Flint, of the California School Boards Association, which supported AB 824, compared the student board member position to Washington D.C. and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, which elect non-voting members to the House of Representatives and don’t have representation in the Senate like the 50 states.

A student petitioning to be their county board’s representative can be of any high school grade. They would need 500 signatures of pupils enrolled in a high school under their county board of education’s jurisdiction, or 10% of the number of pupils enrolled in a high school under their county board’s jurisdiction, whichever is less. 

Want to learn more about becoming a student board member?

Check out the CSBA fact sheet that covers the role of a student board member and how students can petition their board for representation. 

“I love the idea of government involvement by students because it gets them to understand governance from an actual experience versus just reading about it,” Barke said. “It would be a great opportunity for somebody [who] might want to go into government.”

In the event that multiple students obtain the required signatures, the board can appoint multiple representatives, who will serve for one year. If no student petitions, the board must choose a student representative from the high schools under their jurisdiction. 

High schools in Orange County have varying relationships with the OCBE.

Public high schools that have a local district board of education, such as Los Alamitos High School, operate autonomously, with the OCBE managing countywide budgets and acting as an appeals board for transfer students and expulsions. 

Charter schools like Orange County School of the Arts, while granted a charter by OCBE, also have their own governing boards. 

Other high schools do not have district boards but are under the county office of education (COE), which is the Orange County Department of Education here locally. 

The OCDE serves Orange County’s more vulnerable students through their ACCESS programs (Alternative, Community, and Correctional Education Schools and Services). 

“[They] have special demands on their time in a situation which isn’t as conducive to success in a typical mainstream school environment,” Flint said. County-run schools serve students with unique circumstances, including teen parents and students who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. 

“That often is very different from what students in schools at the local district level have experienced. It makes sense to have a student on the board who has a first-hand experience of what COE students may be dealing with,” Flint said. He called for an increased cognizance of how to address these differences and use them to better support disadvantaged students. 

Consequently, CSBA is sponsoring new legislation that would amend the current student board member law that took effect in July.

Assembly Bill 417 will address a loophole in the original text that did not specify a pathway for students from alternative high schools to be appointed as a county board’s representative in the case that no one petitioned for the role.

“It's a fundamental equity issue,” Flint said. The wording of the current law restricts boards to choosing a representative from traditional district high schools. However, the OCBE primarily serves COE students, since high schools like LAHS are directly governed by their district school board.

The proposed bill won’t prevent students from district high schools from becoming student board members, it will simply give students at OCDE schools the same opportunity, Flint said.

That means students from county-run high schools like Sunburst Youth Academy and Pacific Coast High School would also be eligible to be appointed to serve as a student board member on the OCBE. 

"This change would clarify that current law is not intended to limit county boards of education to selecting only a student from a school district high school and not one from a high school under its own jurisdiction," Flint wrote in an email.

“Most likely it was not drafted intentionally to exclude COE students, [but] you have to read [laws] in the most literal fashion,” Flint said. The revised bill is moving through the legislature and is expected to go into effect Jan. 1, 2024. 

“There's a lot of talk about uplifting student voices. Here's an actual piece of tangible legislation where we can improve student representation so it more accurately reflects the interests and needs of a group of students who, for the most part, have been underserved in our public school system,” he said.

“This is a great opportunity for students interested in serving a greater community,” said Joelle Kaiser, the Los Alamitos High School senior and the student representative to the Los Alamitos USD Board of Education. “Serving on the county board of education would have the responsibility of listening to a greater number of voices, but also the new opportunity to share these voices with a larger audience.”

OCBE trustee Barke shared how a student serving on the county board might compare to Joelle’s experience serving on her local district’s board.

“The district board would be a little bit more relevant because [there] would be things that are going on on your campus, where the county is more of an overall county perspective,” said Barke, who represents areas including Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, and Seal Beach. “You would live in Los Alamitos, but we might be talking about San Juan Capistrano, so it might not affect your day-to-day activities as a student like a district meeting.”

She added that the position would involve reading hundreds of pages on the agenda and discussing the issues with other board members.

“I would expect that they would take the job seriously and come prepared,” Barke said. “There's nothing like actually being up there, just having pre-read the entire agenda and listening to the community input.”

Flint agrees that the student board member should be able to speak to the issues the board has control over.

“The closer that representative is to the experience of the people they're advocating for, the more effective they're going to be in voicing and addressing those needs,” Flint said.

And it isn’t just local school districts or county boards of education that allow student representatives. The California State Board of Education is accepting applications until Sept. 22 for people interested in serving as its student board member for the 2024-25 school year. 

Any California resident enrolled in a public high school who will be a senior in good standing next school year is eligible to apply. They also must be available to attend a conference in Sacramento from November 5 - 8, 2023. Find more information on the California Department of Education website.

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