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Arizona students are helping to decide school budgets. In the process, they are learning about democracy

Posted on December 17, 2023 • Categories: Story, The Arizona We Want in Action
By Madeleine Parrish, K-12 Education Reporter, Arizona Republic

This year, students at Ed and Verma Pastor Elementary School will decide how to spend $2,000 of the school district's money.

The south Phoenix elementary school is one of dozens of schools across Arizona implementing school participatory budgeting, where students vote on how to spend funds to improve their school.

Pastor Elementary is still in the early stages of this year's participatory budgeting process. For now, a steering committee of 10 students is leading the effort by surveying their classmates on how they would like to see the money used.

They ultimately will narrow down the ideas, develop proposals and put five options before the entire student body for a vote in the spring. Students will campaign for the projects leading up to the vote, making signs and videos to promote their favorite ideas.

Students on the steering committee already have some ideas: a vending machine with Gatorade and chips; better grass to play soccer on; and math, science and reading games. Even though they have their own hopes for how the money will be spent, they are excited to hear their classmates' proposals.

Karen Escalante, 10, said she joined the committee because she wanted to help kids find new ways to solve problems. Karen said she thinks that finding something that's safe, within the budget and appropriate for the school will be hard. Students must consider factors like installation and maintenance costs and are limited to district-approved vendors.

Lee'Naijaha Matthews, 10, joined the committee because she wanted to help kids come up with ideas and "to know how things work," like budgeting.

Alfredo Lira, 10, said he hopes the school can get something fun for everyone. He wants to help his classmates "like school so they can come every single day," he said.

How have students decided to spend their schools' money?

The Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, is helping schools implement participatory budgeting to improve civic engagement across the state. Through it, students are "learning democracy by doing," said Kristi Tate, the center's director of civic health initiatives.

Arizona was a leader in school participatory budgeting. The first school in the country to implement it was Bioscience High School in the Phoenix Union High School District in 2013, Tate said. Now, more than 60 schools in Arizona implement it in a given year, reaching about 70,000 students, she said. In March 2022, the Arizona Department of Education granted the center $1.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to expand school participatory budgeting across the state.

Last year, the Roosevelt Elementary School District became the first elementary school district across the country to take on participatory budgeting, according to Tate. This year, 10 of the district's schools are participating, including Pastor Elementary.

The money for participatory budgeting in Roosevelt Elementary district came out of the district's desegregation funds, which Arizona law allows districts to raise through local property taxes to pay for expenses related to consent agreements with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights or desegregation court orders, including agreements or orders that have been lifted or expired.

Many of the winning projects across the Roosevelt Elementary district last year were related to improving recess, with items like soccer goals, playground equipment and a game room, said Megan Gestson, the district's executive director of leadership and learning. At one school, students voted to place mirrors in a bathroom, which was enlightening for teachers and district leadership, Gestson said.

Through participatory budgeting, students are often "identifying elements of their school experience … that adults on campus might not have visibility into," Tate said.

The results from last year's pilot program within the Roosevelt Elementary district showed that "students are interested in their health and well-being, and the outdoors and sustainability," said Tara Bartlett, a senior research analyst with Arizona State University's Participatory Governance Initiative.

In the Chandler Unified School District, students have a bit more money to spend: $5,000 for junior high schools and $10,000 for high schools. Over the past six years, winning projects have included water bottle filling stations, a school mascot statue, a mural, a Gaga Ball pit, chairs with backs for a science lab, sun shades and accessible tables for students with wheelchairs.

The program has elevated student voices beyond the parameters of participatory budgeting. The district is renovating school bathrooms by adding urinal dividers and scratch-proof stalls after hearing student concerns that came to light during previous participatory budgeting processes, said Phil Robertson, Chandler Unified's K-12 social studies academic coach who leads the implementation of participatory budgeting.

For students, participatory budgeting "demystifies the voting process and the election system," Robertson said. On vote day, students who will be 18 for the next election also can register to vote.

Over the past six years, more than 2,000 Chandler Unified students have registered to vote during participatory budgeting vote days, Robertson said.

During a November kickoff meeting at Chandler Unified's Payne Junior High School in Queen Creek, seventh and eighth graders on the steering committee practiced using a mini participatory budgeting process. The 16 students decided how to spend $20 on snacks for the next meeting. Students compared prices and considered each other's dietary restrictions, ultimately voting on doughnut holes.

When it comes time to develop proposals for the real deal, the students will talk to the district's support services and purchasing departments to ensure they have chosen good vendors and that the projects are feasible. Administrators must preapprove projects before they go before students for a vote.

"You guys actually have some real power here," Brandon D'Entremont, the committee's faculty adviser, told the middle schoolers.

Sophia Sontani, 13, said she wanted to join the committee to get "ready for the real world" and practice budgeting money.

Niko Karp, 12, said he already has some ideas, like desks with whiteboard tops.

"I definitely had some ideas on the first week of school that I wanted to change, and now I might have the chance to change things," Niko said.

School participatory budgeting is civics education with real stakes

Compared with other forms of civics education, participatory budgeting is unique because it has real stakes and includes everyone, said Daniel Shugurensky, an ASU professor and the founding director of the university's Participatory Governance Initiative.

"There are many other processes of civic education that tend to focus on memorization and tests, which is good but is not enough. There are also simulations," he said. "But this is for real."

Participatory budgeting began at the municipal level in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, according to Shugurensky, who is also writing a book on school participatory budgeting. It's since spread to more than 10,000 municipalities around the world.

At the school level, it's simultaneously a tool for citizenship education, civic engagement and school democracy, he said.

"There's some type of tangible outcome that they see with their own eyes and feel like, 'Hey, I did that,'" said Bartlett, the researcher from ASU's Participatory Governance Initiative who is co-writing the book with Shugurensky.

It's a complement to programs like student government that tend to "attract the usual suspects" — students who had prior opportunities for leadership development, Shugurensky said. In contrast, participatory budgeting allows all students to participate, he said.

It also teaches another important lesson about democracy, Shugurensky said, about "happy losers."

"They trust the process, and they're willing to come back the next year" with an improved project, he said.

At Pastor Elementary, students will soon submit their ideas to the steering committee. Kindergarten through fourth-grade students can draw their proposals, not just write them.

In November, steering committee members put together a presentation to share with their classmates. The members' advice about the process? Remember to pick something fun for everyone. Don't be sad if the school doesn't get what you wanted. Share whatever the school buys — and make sure it lasts.