The Berkeley Youth Commission is gung-ho on civic involvement, and wants to involve all fellow students at Berkeley High.
On Tuesday, the commission held a fifth-period forum and debate at the Little Theatre on the Berkeley High School campus, on the merits of giving 17-year-olds the vote in Berkeley School Board elections.
The Youth Commission, jointly sponsored by the City of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District, was able to enlist the aid and participation of Councilmembers Max Anderson and Gordon Wozniak and Mayor Tom Bates. No one from the School Board or BUSD administration was present although Superintendent Lawrence was listed on the program.
Four classes of students listened as Councilmember Anderson spoke in favor of 17-year-olds voting in School Board elections, arguing that America’s history of excluding African-Americans and women from the vote, compelled allowing 17-year-olds to vote especially since they are old enough to have a driver’s license and enlist in the military.
Councilmember Wozniak spoke against the proposal saying he had not heard a convincing reason for the change.
“Why 17 and not 16?” he asked. Wozniak cited statistics that said out of 106 countries surveyed, 86 of them set the voting age at 18, indicating a consensus among the majority of countries for 18 to be the appropriate voting age. Mayor Bates was enthusiastic about this civic debate and encouraged all students to be involved.
Students also debated the pros and cons. The pro side, represented by students belonging to the National Youth Rights Association, argued for allowing 17-year-olds to vote for School Board for two reasons. The first was that it would be a good lesson in civics, and the second was that “students are way more interested in and affected by schools than the School Board,” argued Pamela Tatz.
She cited torn apart bathrooms, graffiti and lack of desks as problems facing students and concluded by saying, “Nobody would not benefit from 17-year-olds voting for School Board.”
The con side, presented by students from Junior Statesmen of America, argued that simply being affected is no justification for changing the voting age.
“It [school board actions] affects kindergarteners too. And kids in private schools who are not affected will be able to vote,” said Noah Mogey.
Mogey’s debate partner, Daniel Gleich argued that a mere change to allow for school board elections was ”unfair and unconstitutional” and said that the appropriate change would be to lower the age of all laws to 17 from 18.
In rebuttal, Zach Hobesh of the National Youth Rights Association, stated that voting for School Board is a start. “You can’t start in Washington,” he said.
Teal Miller, the non-voting student representative on the School Board, echoed the refrain that giving 17-year-olds the vote would “get our attention” and encourage involvement.
Commission Chair Rio Bauce ended the forum by asking all students to sign the petition. Next week the petitions will be circulated during class. While most of the students in the audience briskly filed out, a small group continued the debate.
Bauce said that a teacher had suggested the alternative of giving the elected student member on the School Board a vote.
“That is definitely a possibility, if not a compromise,” Bauce said, and promised to bring this before the Youth Commission at its January meeting.
Asked whether a voting student representative on the board would solve the problem, Miller answered that a voting member would “make sure that student needs are taken care of.” When asked to identify these student needs are, she said, “I need to learn more about issues like the health center, and get student input.”
Miller also said that during her tenure on the School Board, there hasn’t been an issue in which the board did not take her comments into consideration.