“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” — George Bernard Shaw

BOSTON — Young people from across Massachusetts visited the Statehouse last week to ask the Legislature to change how democracy works. Members of the Massachusetts Association of Student Representatives, the high schoolers who sit on school boards, have drafted legislation that would allow themselves equal voting rights with the school board members they already serve alongside.

“We are the ones receiving the education. We’re in those desks. We get the bulk of whatever the School Committee has to throw at us,” said Elliott Talley, a New Bedford High student, jazz band member, and student council president who was among those petitioning on Beacon Hill. “I think it is very important to have a youth voice on school committees,” he said.


Students and supporters gave speeches and presentations under the capitol building’s gilded dome, where the young leaders were sober about their proposal to amend the government under the world’s oldest functioning written constitution — a title which Massachusetts’ 1780 document holds. 

“We’re trying to change something about who has a say in democracy,” said Joe Pisani, a rising high school senior from Huntington. “This is beneficial and healthy for democracy … for students to start to have a say,” he said.

Joe Pisani, of Huntington, Mass., has been leading the push for student voting rights as part of the Massachusetts Association of Student Representatives (MASR). Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Across the country, several states permit students to sit on school boards, but only one local district in the country — Maryland’s Anne Arundel County — allows students unrestricted voting rights and access to closed-door sessions, according to a report from Education Next. Other districts in a minority of states offer restricted or sometimes ceremonial ballot-casting from student members. 

In Massachusetts, local student board members serve in an advisory role only. But, if passed, the legislation would give student-members on all 302 commonwealth school boards full voting rights — meaning the elected students would have equal sway on issues ranging from the school budget to the hiring and firing of superintendents.

During a tour of the Statehouse, Rep. Tommy Vitolo of Brookline told the students: “democracy is 81 wolves and 79 sheep deciding what’s for lunch.” Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

However, the state Board of Education — the representatives who oversee the entire Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — already allows suffrage for their lone student member. That student, Ela Gardiner, attended Wednesday’s event.

“Real change happens on the local level rather than going through the big, statewide systems,” said Gardiner, a Wellesley student who was elected to the state board in June. She spoke to fellow students about the importance of increasing student representation, as hers is the only vote on behalf of the over 900,000 students across the commonwealth. 

“Who wants to sit in a three- or four-hour meeting if you can’t vote?” Gardiner asked. “Why are you there, really?”

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) in the House and Sen. Adam Gomez (D-Hampden) in the Senate are sponsoring the bill, which would repeal language in the current law that designates student representatives as nonvoting members. 

Instead, that language would be replaced with the following: “School committees of cities, towns and regional school districts shall recognize two (2) student representatives, to be elected by the student bodies of all secondary schools within the district, prior to the first day of June in each year.”

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According to the law, those student members “shall be allowed to vote on all matters before the committee … shall be subject to all school committee rules and regulations, shall serve without compensation, and without the right to attend executive sessions unless such right is expressly granted by the individual school committee.”

Rep. Farley-Bouvier, who wasn’t present at Wednesday’s event, provided a statement to The Light: “I am so pleased to be working … on this bill to provide student representatives on school committees the ability to vote in committee proceedings,” she said. “The voice of students is so important in making decisions pertaining to the education system and this bill would provide the students not only a seat at the table, but also a voice in those decisions.”

Students and their supporters see the legislation as a boon to civic engagement and government accountability, but Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), said the proposed changes are not the most effective vehicle toward those goals.

“In order to have a vote in the halls of public policy, you have to be elected by the people,” Koocher said. According to the bill, student members would be elected by their school peers, not by the general public. 


Massachusetts students are fighting for their right … to vote. These high schoolers drafted legislation that would give them equal voting rights with the school board members they already serve alongside. Read Colin Hogan’s story at NewBedfordLight.org newbedford #newbedfordma nbma education #mapoli #maeducation #mastatesenate mastatehouse boston #bostonma #schoolboards voting

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“It is undemocratic in that respect,” Koocher said. His suggestion: “If you lower the voting age to 16 to vote for school board, then you could conceivably still have somebody in the school to serve on the school committee.”

That idea has been gaining steam in Massachusetts, as last year the Boston City Council passed a home rule petition that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in municipal elections, which is awaiting further approval by Mayor Michelle Wu and the state Legislature. The idea may also be catching on in Southborough, where a state lawmaker said they would also file a petition to allow 17-year-olds to vote. 

Koocher, however, agrees with the students on one point: “The school board is right at the base of the grassroots of American democracy. It’s closest to the people,” he said. 

From left, Sean Simonini, Ela Gardiner, Samantha Lambert, and Joe Pisani spoke on a panel about the benefits of students voting on school boards. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Supporters of the bill are adamant, however, in saying that a vote explicitly for students is most fair. “Most of my constituents can not vote for me,” said Samantha Lambert, a two-term school committee member in Everett, who was at the Statehouse to offer support for the bill. 

Given the right to cast his vote, Talley, the New Bedford student, said he would help protect funding for art and music in New Bedford. Over the past few months, Talley said he has also been repeatedly making suggestions to the School Committee to improve safety and discipline practices at New Bedford High, and his full membership would allow him to make official motions that could influence policy. 

Talley summarized why the cause is important to him: “It’s all about making sure that everybody is represented, especially people that are affected by the system.”

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

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