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When the members of Oakland’s All City Council, Oakland Unified School District’s student union, sat down with other student organizers to discuss possible campaign ideas back in 2019, the district was in a position not unlike the one it finds itself in today: facing backlash from students and other community members about looming budget cuts and school closures.
The student coalition—composed of youth organizers from ACC, Oakland Kids First, Californians for Justice, Youth Together, Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, and AYPAL—felt strongly at the time that students should have a greater say in decisions affecting them, and decided that lowering the voting age for school board races was one way to get it. After all, they’d seen Berkeley voters approve a youth vote measure in 2016, and a student activist in Los Angeles was calling for the same.
They succeeded in getting a measure on the ballot in 2020, and their efforts were rewarded when Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved Measure QQ, allowing 16-and 17-year-olds to vote in their district’s school board elections.
“School closures and budget cuts have been happening for years, and it really influenced our work in 2019,” said Linh Le, the student union president. “And there’s a really big frustration now, with the board making decisions for students that ultimately affect us the most.”
Last year, the student organizing coalition surveyed 1,500 of their peers about their priorities for education in Oakland. School safety and cleanliness were top responses, along with forming closer relationships with teachers and school staff.
Although it’s still early in the election season (no school board candidates have officially filed yet), the youth coalition plans to use the survey responses to put together a student platform and create a student-friendly school board elections guide. The goal isn’t to endorse specific candidates, they say, but to give students a way to evaluate the races through a student-centered lens.
“Hopefully, this will allow us to make sure that we elect people who are going to put our needs first, which is something we’re not seeing right now,” said Ixchel Arista, a junior at Oakland High School and youth organizer with Oakland Kids First.
Earlier this month, the school board voted to implement a controversial plan to close two schools this year and five schools next year. The plan will also shrink two K-8 schools to elementaries, and will merge two other schools. It’s a scaled-down version of an initial proposal that would have closed, shrank, or merged 15 schools over the next two years. The school board modified the plan after students, teachers, families, and community members expressed outrage at protests and school board meetings.
Students spoke up at some of those meetings and actions about their newfound voting power, and encouraged other teens to take advantage of it as well.
“When I turn 16 and have the power to vote, I’ll be voting for the board members that are advocating for us. When you don’t advocate for us, we’re not going to advocate for you when it’s election time,” said Sophie Tran, a student at Oakland High School and vice president of All City Council, during one February school board meeting.
“Don’t forget that this year, in November, all 16- and 17-year-olds are now able to vote for school board representatives as students. So go out and get pre-registered, and get the school board out,” OUSD school board Student Director Natalie Gallegos said to a crowd of student protesters earlier this month at Oakland Technical High School.
Roughly 7,600 students who were in 9th or 10th grade last year will be in 11th or 12th grade this November, and may be eligible to vote. School board seats for districts 2, 4, and 6 will be up for re-election. Those seats are currently held by school board Directors Aimee Eng, Gary Yee, and Shanthi Gonzales, respectively, all of whom have said the closures and mergers are necessary to help right the district’s financial problems.
Student leaders see the youth vote as an opportunity to increase awareness and generate more robust conversations about civic engagement on OUSD campuses. Introducing a student-led platform, civics curriculum, and placing ballot drop boxes on campuses are things they say can help.
“Right now, it’s up to us and independent organizations, and youth on their own, to educate themselves on our candidates, the school board, etc.,” Ixchel said. “Hopefully, in the long term, this youth justice platform can transform into something that can eventually be integrated into our curriculum. So it’s more systemic and not so much like, ‘You have to go out and find this information.’”
Implementing the youth vote will require resources, and time. Although Berkeley voters approved a similar measure in 2016, teens there still haven’t been able to cast a ballot because of logistical challenges and a lack of money to implement the measure. Berkeley’s measure restricted the city from dipping into its budget to pay for the youth vote—placing the onus instead on Berkeley Unified School District. Oakland’s Measure QQ does not have that restriction.
The Oakland City Auditor’s office estimated that implementing Measure QQ could cost $7,000 to $10,000 during school board election years. Expenses will include printing special ballots for teens that only list their district’s school board race, and additional fees to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. The county’s voting software will also have to be updated to allow for younger voters.
“Before I joined Oakland Kids First, I had no idea we had this power and the ability to create these massive changes,” Ixchel said. “The further I’ve been in this campaign and working with peers and organizers, I’ve learned so much about my own power and the power that all students have who don’t know it yet. Being able to spread that and seeing them register and eventually vote will be really satisfying.”
An earlier version of this article only credited All City Council for launching a youth vote campaign in Oakland. In fact, ACC did so in coalition with Oakland Kids First, Californians for Justice, Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, AYPAL, and Youth Together. The story was updated on March 1 to reflect this.