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Over the past several years, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) has undergone several drastic changes. A major redesign has hurt veteran teacher morale, parents are upset about the guidance department and students faced massive scheduling problems at the beginning of this school year. These problems, compounded by a high failure rate on the recent Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, have created a strained atmosphere at CRLS. In this light, a recent proposal to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections may be an innovative way to give students a chance to impact their own education.
The idea, sparked by a local non-profit group, is to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote for members of the Cambridge School Committee and City Council. Students have rallied behind the proposal--about 50 attended a recent meeting with city councillors to present their case. They rightly argued that adolescents have other important privileges and that student voting would allow them to become involved in the political process at an earlier age. However, the most important reason to allow students to vote in school committee elections has nothing to do with civics or encouraging people to become life-long voters. That goal might be equally reached by student council elections or a mock presidential vote. Students should have a voice on the school committee because they are directly affected by the committee's decisions and have a perspective on the school atmosphere that neither teachers nor administrators can provide.
School is one of the biggest influences on the lives of adolescents. In these formative years, children learn how to think and act like adults. The impact of education on a young person's life cannot be overstated--it molds both students' intellect and social development. Education is a local issue; school committees around the nation have a great deal of control over their curricula, teaching styles and extracurricular activities. As a result, the decisions made by local school committees are one of the most important influences on the lives of students. The choice to drop a course, revamp a schedule, cut a budget or add an after-school activity can have a huge impact on students' daily lives.
Students also have a unique perspective on education, different from both administrators and teachers. They know why some teachers fail to motivate their students while other teachers seem able to encourage even the most reluctant learners to participate in class. They know ways that teachers and administrators can be more effective and efficient. To ignore this source of insight can do nothing but hurt communities trying to improve education.
Technically, the Cambridge School Committee includes several student members. However, these students cannot vote on issues before the committee. Because they have no measurable impact, these students cannot adequately represent their peers.
Of course, in asking for the vote, students should not be under the impression that they will suddenly take control of the administrative or day-to-day aspects of CRLS. Fortunately, teachers are not hired or fired by the school committee--no one would advocate a system where strict teachers feel threatened by students. The school committee controls the broad agenda of the school's educational mission overall. Students should have some influence over that agenda. CRLS is facing a difficult and challenging time. After a comprehensive redesign that has caused morale among some veteran teachers to drop and nightmarish scheduling problems, the high MCAS failure rates were another blow to the institution. The huge number of students who boycotted the test is not the end of the story--among students who did take the exam, scores were lower than the year before in both math and English.
The looming MCAS dilemma cannot be resolved merely by giving the vote to Cambridge adolescents. However, some other problems at CRLS might be. Students know what really goes on in school better than most administrators and school committee members. It is time to allow students proper representation on the school committee.
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