Maryland’s highest court has ruled against an attempt to limit the voting power of the Howard County Board of Education’s student member.
The court held Wednesday that the county school board did not run afoul of the Maryland Constitution by granting voting rights to its student board member. Two parents, frustrated with the outcome of several board decisions concerning the reopening of schools, filed the lawsuit in December 2020 against Howard County’s board on behalf of their children in the school system.
Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford challenged the student’s voting rights after the board repeatedly split 4-4 on motions that would have allowed students to return to school buildings amid the pandemic. The student member had voted against resuming in-person instruction, resulting in stalemates that caused the motions to fail.
Plaintiffs Ford and Spiegel wrote in a statement that they were disappointed by the ruling because it allows 16- and 17-year-olds elected by students ages 11 to 17 to cast votes on Howard County’s school board.
“Our disappointment should be nothing, however, compared to Marylanders’ shock when they learn that the State Constitution does not apply whatsoever when it comes [to] who serves on and who selects members of local [boards of education]. And by whatsoever we literally mean anyone and anything including two-year-olds, house cats, non-Marylanders, etc.,” Ford wrote in an email.
The lawsuit argued that allowing a student to vote violates the state’s constitution because the student is almost always under 18 and can’t vote in elections or hold elected office.
“When you are a taxpayer, it’s a little frustrating that someone who is 16 and doesn’t have the life experience that I have has an equivalent vote on what happens to my children,” Spiegel said last year.
The lawsuit failed in March 2021 in Howard County Circuit Court, but plaintiffs were granted an appeal a few months later.
The appeals court based its decision in part on a provision of the Maryland Constitution dating back to 1867, which transferred responsibility for the public school system to the General Assembly. Unlike public offices created by the state constitution, offices created by the legislature can be modified, controlled or abolished as lawmakers see fit.
While people under 18 can’t vote in elections or hold elected offices in Maryland, the court’s ruling distinguished the selection of the school board’s student member from a regular election.
“It’s not a vote in a constitutional legal sense, but it is providing students with the opportunity to have a voice,” said Joseph Mead, senior counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, the law firm that litigated the case. “There’s nothing unconstitutional with allowing students to have that limited voice in their education.”
“We’re training students to be future citizens and future voters and this is a way to give them the opportunity to exercise that,” Mead said. “It’s an innovative, cool, creative thing that the court said doesn’t conflict with the state constitution.”
The Evening Sun
Another case challenging the voting power of student school board members, Kim vs. Board of Education of Howard County, is pending in federal trial court.
The ruling is a decisive win for Maryland students seeking to protect or expand their voting rights on the state’s 24 local school boards. Most school boards in the region permit middle and high schoolers to elect one peer, typically a junior or senior, to serve a one-year term and participate in votes alongside their adult counterparts.
Some jurisdictions limit students from voting on issues including school boundaries, personnel matters or collective bargaining contracts. Others, such as Anne Arundel County, grant their student board member full voting rights on all decisions.
Maryland student board members have lobbied in recent years for more voting rights in their jurisdictions. The General Assembly approved a bill in the spring that would have granted full voting rights to Baltimore County’s student board member — but the effort failed following a veto from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Abisola Ayoola, 16, the newly sworn-in student member of the Howard County school board, said she was glad the court ruled in the board’s favor.
“I think this will set a great precedent for other counties in Maryland,” Ayoola said. The rising junior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia said it makes sense for students to have a voice in decisions that affect them, such as mental health policies in schools. “It really solidifies the fact that policies are in favor of the students, and we have to live with the policies that are put in place for our schools.”