Student perspectives get lost at legislative session

Sadler head shotEducation has lost out recently in attention to gun rights, the attorney general, and air quality, but during the legislative session the biggest question is typically education funding. This is a question–along with other questions concerning sex education, the common core, scholarship standards, and prioritizing STEM fields–where students are largely left out.

With the end of the legislative session and the school year, it is time to reflect on education policy and advocacy at the Utah Legislature.

I worked this year in the University of Utah student government (ASUU) as the Director of Government Relations. During the legislative session, I made it my responsibility and privilege to be at the Capitol as much as I could–typically three days a week–attending meetings, testifying to bills, lobbying legislators, and working with other college and high school students as they engaged with the legislative process.

During the 45-day session, I kept track of the number of students present at the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, the Senate Education Committee, and House Education Committee Meetings. In rooms of about 50 individuals, there were only six or seven students. Only half of these students were there to represent themselves, the other half were legislative interns.

With the exception of elementary school tour groups, seeing students at the Utah Capitol is a rare sight. While in high school, students are committed to being in school during most of the day while the Legislature works. I know of only one program that engages high school students at the Utah Legislature as advocates and critical thinkers–the Mestizo Arts and Activism Legislative Internship. In college there is a little more flexibility with regards to schedule, but as work, family, and school commitments build and students face the daunting task of getting to the Capitol, let alone participating in the process–few are able to attend public hearings and floor time debate.

And why would they be there?  The most common response I receive from legislators is a kind, condescending appreciation that I am at the Capitol. Some interrupt me while I am discussing the finer details of credit requirement policy, embrace my shoulder, and thank me for “being there,” saying that my “involvement is so important and wonderful to see in youth.” The legislator walks away with deaf ears to my perspective.

After all, what is the value of a student perspective? Students are not experts, in the sense of metrics, data, and statistics. Students are not policy makers or lobbyists.  Students do not have money to hire staff or make campaign contributions. All that students have is their experience and their voice. But it is those very students who will experience the effects of legislative policy–effects thats the lawyers and officials making policy won’t experience.

I worked this year to advocate for students and, more importantly, with students. My perspective is only one out of the roughly 150,000 higher education students and 570,000 public education students in Utah. These are the voices that lobbyists, advocates, policy makers, and legislators should be privileging. The student voice is the voice of experience. And that experience is resolute in arguing that we need to do more for education in Utah.


Ali is an advocate for students in public and higher education. She is interning this summer with Alliance for a Better UTAH and the ACLU.

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