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Democracy in the Classroom: A Hands-On Learning Experience Through Voting on School Budget Priorities

Democracy doesn’t just have to be something students learn in textbooks. It can also be taught through participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting takes place in a handful of US cities, including New York City. (Photo: Daniel Latorre)

How abstract is the idea of democracy for students in US schools? For most, it is taught through lectures, dry textbooks or debates. It’s not easy teaching a concept not respected on the national level. Yet there exists an innovative way to bring this topic to students with the added bonus of giving power to them, and it’s called participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, or PB, is a young concept that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. At the time, the Workers’ Party advocated for the process to help poorer citizens that were neglected in favor of middle and upper-class Brazilians for the past few decades.

The process allows residents to come up with ideas to better their community. People attend assemblies or meetings to discuss such plans and, through committees, refine ideas for a vote. After voting ends, the projects that receive the most votes are funded with an allocated budget. Then, the process starts over in the following cycle.

Porto Alegre’s process succeeded with nearly 40,000 residents joining the process in 1999, up from less than 1,000 in 1990. It empowered residents to take greater control of their affairs and expanded to other towns, cities and countries in Brazil and beyond. Recently, Portugal announced the first-ever national PB process.

PB in Chicago

In 2009, Chicago became the first US city to adopt the process. Joe Moore, the 49th ward’s alderman, allocated $1.3 million to his constituents for PB. Over the years, residents have successfully pitched projects such as murals, bike lanes and parks.

Students can participate too. Jorge Pule, a program manager at the youth-empowerment organization Mikva Challenge, works with students at different schools in Chicago’s 49th ward. He’s worked as part of the program for two years and is “confident in saying that it’s been very successful.”

“It’s our third year doing this, and every year we’ve had our projects voted for from the community, which ended up being implemented. It’s really, really cool in how this happened,” Pule said.

Pule provided examples of what students pitched in the process. For example, he worked with students at Sullivan High School, who proposed benches at bus stops for the 49th ward’s 2014-15 cycle. This was done so students and the elderly could sit while waiting for buses. The proposal later won.

Thea Crum, director of Neighborhood Initiative at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Chicago, also works with students on participatory budgeting. She recalled the 49th ward’s early days of doing voting events at Sullivan High School.

“They were on a Saturday and so youth were invited, as well as parents,” she said.

Sullivan students participated in the first cycle and organized together to figure out what their neighborhood needed. Because of their success and interest in PB, the principal of Sullivan, along with coalition group PB Chicago, worked to develop a school-based process allowing students to decide how to spend $25,000.

The school process was run out of a classroom elective taught by Embarc Chicago, an organization assisting Chicago’s youths in schools. Students developed surveys that their peers took during lunch, spoke with staff members and even the principal, narrowed the ideas they received and conducted research.

“They did an in-school campaign, to get out the vote, and ended up having three projects on the final ballot,” Crum added.

One project was to repair and improve restrooms. Another was to install new technologies, such as smartboards and computers, in classrooms. A final one on the ballot was creating a recreational room for students so that, during lunch, they could play games and relax. Students ultimately chose the recreational room with 70 percent, or 378 students, of the student body voting for the project.

Participatory budgeting as an idea is radical as it redefines the power youths have when dealing with issues, said Crum. The traditional “consultation” process involves young people, but does not allow them “any decision-making power.” PB offers the opportunity for youths to act by themselves using a set budget and accomplish their goals together.

“These are people that are really invested in their community in a variety of ways … How does that help shape a teen’s identity when that’s one of the biggest tasks they’re being faced with developmentally? It’s ‘Who am I in this world,’ and ‘Can I make a difference?'” she said.

Celina Su, chair of the Urban Studies department at CUNY Brooklyn College, studies youth participation in PB and also highlighted as a way for “youths [to have] a chance to get their voices heard, but in a way that is clearly constructive and productive, even when youth are forwarding critiques of the systems we see in place.”

Su explained that PB can cause spillover effects in other policy areas.

“For instance, a couple of years ago [in New York City], a lot of parents and students were so sick of demanding PB funds for [repairing] school bathroom stalls again, so that kids didn’t have to hold their pee all day. They were outraged that they had to work on project proposals for discretionary funds for this, when [elementary school bathrooms] felt like a basic need. After just a couple years of PB, the School Construction Authority doubled its bathroom budget from $50 million to $100 million. To suddenly have that $50 million increase, because of PB, is a really big deal,” she said.

A First in Phoenix

PB continues to expand nationwide as seen in Phoenix, Arizona. The Phoenix United High School District announced it would use district funds for a process at all 17 of its schools.

More than 27,000 students attend the district’s schools with a vast majority identifying as Hispanic. Indeed, more than half of students speak Spanish at home. The district also provides free or reduced lunches to many of its students. Now, the district will offer the opportunity for youths to decide what their schools need.

“Right now, Phoenix United High School District is the first school district in the country to implement PB in five schools simultaneously using district-wide funds,” said Ashley Brennan, a program fellow at the Participatory Budgeting Project that is working with the district in implementing the process.

The five schools participating in the program include Bioscience High School, Carl Hayden Community High School, Central High School, Franklin Police and Fire High School, and Phoenix Coding Academy. The process is no stranger to the district. Bioscience was one of the first schools in the nation to adopt it in 2013, which it has since continued.

Brennan noted the potential of the process in not only empowering students with control, but also changing the identities of some as well.

“Certainly we have a lot of students who are involved in the school community, but we also had a lot who say things to me like, ‘I’m not in student government, I don’t know how to do anything’ from one of our first meetings,” she noted. “But, a couple of meetings on, we see those same students as the ones really driving forward certain ideas and being more confident.”

Sherry Celaya, the district’s chief financial officer, said PB will expand to all 17 schools in the future. For now, the five schools will finalize their idea collection phase. Celaya anticipates the voting process will begin in March “because, depending on the complexity of the project, our goal was going to have approval and orders in by April 1.”

Setbacks and Potential of PB

Despite its positives, the process does suffer from limitations. Crum explained that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) wanted an expansion of PB at its other schools. PB works well with the district’s curriculum “called Participate that’s about civic engagement, and as a part of it, they have a civic action requirement for students to work on a project that PB is perfect for.”

But Illinois’ budget crisis impacted this proposal. Last summer, state lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner struggled to agree on a budget for the fiscal year. This jeopardized any secure funding for Chicago’s public schools with CPS CEO Forrest Claypool warning school closures if state aid was not given. While the state has yet to pass a budget, it resolved the issue with a stopgap budget.

Meanwhile, CPS still suffers from a lack of funding because of inadequate investments, according to a March 2016 report by Education Law Center.

This is affecting PB processes across Chicago’s schools.

“[CPS is] interested in piloting PB in potentially three to five schools, but the dollar amounts would be significantly less because of the budget cuts schools have been facing,” Crum said.

Pule also noted the difficulties in getting a sufficient amount of money to support the process, especially in retaining student interest.

“It makes it hard, because in every year, we try to keep students. Other times we have students graduate or do other programs, [and] we never have the students coming back. Maybe one or two and that’s it. So every time we do PB, we talk about PB, it shows how restrictive it is because when students have ideas for projects we can’t [do them] because PB doesn’t come with that kind of stuff,” he said.

Brennan does not face such a problem in Phoenix, considering the district is entering its first cycle. Instead, the problem is educating people about what participatory budgeting is and what is included.

“It’s a lot of experiential learning, learning as we go, and that’s a challenge, but it’s also a really huge opportunity, a real exciting one, for these schools to learn about the process and also shape it in their schools while they are learning. I’ve seen the schools step up in really creative and exciting ways to go about doing that,” she said.

Pule, too, is optimistic as PB motivates students to deal with problems in their communities. Furthermore, they learn vital skills from public speaking to organizing. Pule felt surprised the initiative did not exist everywhere, as it empowers students to act.

“I’m not going to lie; sometimes when I do have my students and some of them are not intrigued, it’s our job to show them why it’s important. They eventually see it. It’s something that needs to be seen everywhere. It just has to be,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crum distinguished the rapid expansion in New York City to the steady growth in Chicago and noted that “change in Chicago doesn’t happen quickly.” Still, the process does inspire change in youths. A student at Sullivan High School shared her experience with Embarc Chicago on what the process meant to her:

Throughout the whole participatory budgeting project, I have learned that you have to be a great leader. Show respect and be proud of whatever it is you’re doing. When coming together with other as a whole, you have to have patience and positive attitudes. An advice to any student that is participating in this project is to make good decision and be mature and to always remember your voice matters.

Democracy for youths does not have to be following a presidential election or being consulted without a stake in the discussion. Instead, it could be deciding whether to repair bathrooms or install bus benches.

“PB is a pretty radical way to think about making sure that everyone’s voice is included,” Crum noted. “[It’s] giving an opportunity for people who feel marginalized and pushed out of the process to have a real stake in making changes in their community.”