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Participatory budgeting in schools gives students practice in direct democracy
Schools across the U.S. and Europe are showing promising results from an innovation in civic education that gives students real power over real money
By Claudia Goodine
Students at a high school in Queens, New York in 2019 were given the choice of how to spend a few thousand dollars on whatever they wanted to improve their school community. They opted for a greenhouse to grow food that they could donate to a local homeless shelter.
It’s just one example of the kind of projects that can come to fruition when students are given decision-making power through a process known as participatory budgeting - an innovative form of direct democracy where community members control part of a public budget.
“I've never seen something quite like this, where we as students can take initiative on something and see how we can make a change in our own community,” says Veritas Academy alumnus Akshay Kumar.
Participatory budgeting first started in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1980s and since then it’s been used in over 7,000 cities around the world by local governments, housing authorities and, most recently, schools.
Once a pot of money is set aside, students form a participatory budgeting steering committee to lead the process. Sometimes this is part of a class project and coupled with a civics class. Students form groups to research and develop proposals, then pitch ideas to their peers. Eventually, the most feasible ones are voted on by the whole school.
At Veritas Academy, the aforementioned public school in Flushing, north-central Queens, 120 twelfth grade students spent four months developing and pitching proposals for how to spend $2,000 put forward by the city and an extra $2,000 matched by the school for one of the first participatory budgeting experiments of its kind in the state.
On voting day, it came down to a filtered water station, a multi-purpose studio and the greenhouse.
Kumar says it felt empowering to cast a vote for a proposal he and his peers had worked so hard on, a proposal that had a real chance of being funded and could have a real impact not only now, but in the future.
530 students and a few dozen teachers, parents and community members voted, with the greenhouse winning by a landslide. In addition to purchasing the greenhouse (still waiting to be set up due to the pandemic), the school has created a horticultural elective around the project. Meanwhile, the process behind it made a lasting impression on the young people involved.
“I want to be able to come back, maybe five, six years down the line, and see we were a part of that. We made that.”
Participatory budgeting has given students similar experiences in direct democracy in high schools in Phoenix and Dallas, in elementary schools in Chelsea, Quebec, in high-need schools across the state of New York and in schools country-wide in Portugal. Scotland is exploring ways to integrate it into the education system; meanwhile, the public health department in Tacoma, Washington helped facilitate participatory projects in schools in one of the highest-need communities in the region, giving students a direct say in how to invest $100,000.
Funded by a variety of sources (from principals’ discretionary funds and PTAs’ fundraising to city councils and school districts) these experiments all involve the same basic idea: put youth in charge of real money and allow them to make decisions that have real-world consequences.
Civic education for the 21st century
Voter turnout in Canada among people aged 18 to 24 remained the lowest of all age demographics for the last decade, according to Elections Canada, with a gap of more than 20 percentage points between them and voters aged 65 to 74 in the 2015 election, and turnout that remained low in the 2019 election.
Robin Prest, program director for Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, says implementing similar projects in schools in Canada could go a long way in strengthening participation and our democratic culture as a whole.
Civic education traditionally relies on instilling knowledge of political institutions, jurisdictional divisions and electoral processes. As important as it is to understand the overall mechanics of democracy, there’s an age-old saying, backed by neuroscience, that we learn best by doing.
“There are so many students experiencing a form of civic education that treats them like empty vessels to be stuffed with knowledge,” says Prest, “and that is not the culture of democracy we should build. The culture of democracy we should build is one of active participation.”
Youth inherit the state of our democratic system but end up having the least amount of influence over it, says Prest.
People who take part in participatory budgeting processes are more likely to vote, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), which provides training and resources, including an online course with lesson plans for educators, on how to implement participatory budgeting in schools and other institutions.
People for Education, an Ontario-based charity focused on strengthening public education, asks in an article about the purpose of civic literacy in schools: “If civic literacy is about much more than how government works, then shouldn’t we be teaching it throughout the school experience, not just in a few subjects?"
Phoenix Union School District creates transformational change
Phoenix Union became the first school district in the U.S. to demonstrate how to do participatory budgeting on a wide scale through the efforts of Cyndi Tercero-Sandova, the district’s family and community engagement manager and an award-winning expert in dropout prevention and supporting youth.
What started as a small pilot project in 2013 using a principal’s discretionary fund expanded to five high schools in 2016, continuing every year since. Neighbouring school districts and middle schools started getting interested, and now it’s being used in 4 school districts across Arizona.
Tercero-Sandova describes hesitancy toward the idea at first, as teachers and staff were walking out on a strike over school funding at the time. People thought spending money on an experiment with students might be irresponsible given limited school resources. After working with youth for over 24 years, however, she insisted on trusting the students.
“Folks were so surprised with the thoughtfulness, the work, how dedicated they were to this process, and how responsible their decisions were,” she says in an online panel discussion.
A transformational change in culture unfolded where school leaders would seek out student input and students sought to be consulted on decisions. For example, a cafeteria needed to be upgraded and the students wanted to meet with the architects, so school officials included them in discussions about the redesign.
Some students started visiting the legislature and going to city council meetings.
“They understood that they had a voice at school. They wanted to make changes in their community as well,” says Tercero-Sandova.
This year, the process is being used in a new way. Phoenix Union school district decided not to renew its contract with the police department and is diverting $1.2 million instead to a participatory budgeting initiative involving students, teachers and parents to determine ways to improve safety at schools. It shows the potential for participatory budgeting in schools to have an impact not just on individual students, but on the wider community.
Canada’s opportunity to bring participatory budgeting into schools
Strengthening Canadian democracy requires strengthening the ability of youth to be engaged citizens.
“Youth engagement is often little more than a photo-op,” says Prest. “The adults hear from the kids, and then send them to bed with a pat on the head and a glass of water before going behind closed doors to make the real decisions. I don't think we can keep doing that and have a democracy that meaningfully addresses long term issues, be it public debt, climate change or the future of work.”
Antonnet Johnson helps implement participatory budgeting in schools across the U.S. as the research and design strategist for the Participatory Budgeting Project, and says the process gives young people decision making power during a very important developmental period in their lives. Through feedback surveys and interviews, she’s heard that students who take part in participatory budgeting are afterwards more likely to vote, more willing to speak to adults independently if they have questions, and more comfortable with public speaking.
A study by Arizona State University researchers found skill growth in teamwork and leadership among students who took part in a participatory budgeting steering committee in their school.
“I beg every teacher in Canada, every school in Canada to do this, not only because I do love Canada, but because I think this should happen all around the world,” says Mr. Haralambos Thomatos, Dean of Student Affairs at Veritas Academy, who taught economics and government while overseeing the participatory budgeting project there.
“I've never seen students so engaged in government before,” he says, “and the fact that they continue to email me two years later to talk politics is, it's just mind blowing.”
Kumar’s experience at Veritas Academy taught him the challenges and rewards of getting people to work together on a wide scale project.
“It really helped me feel good about not only myself but Veritas school,” says Kumar, who credits the experience with his decision to pursue a double major in business and psychology at Stony Brook University.
60 per cent of Canadians want more opportunities for civic education, according to a survey by the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in 2019.
For Prest, the results of these experiments in schools around the world show that for almost no additional cost, we could make a radical difference in how young people view their democracy, and begin to shape a different type of political citizen - one that is solution-oriented, works well with others, and gets involved in deeper ways.
“In the coming year or two we'd like to identify potential partners and funding sources that would let us develop curriculum in Canada, pilot that curriculum and spread this innovation in civics education to classrooms across Canada,” says Prest.
“Participatory budgeting in schools is one of the democratic innovations that has us most excited. We want to find ways to move it forward.”