Student Governments are present today in the majority of K-12 schools and throughout higher education. Student governments are usually extracurricular activities available to students within schools. They present opportunities for student leadership and are one possible facet of school-based management. Student governments are responsible for certain components of school organization and governance. Their forms and responsibilities may be different at various grade levels. Students who participate in student government tend to have higher GPAs and fewer unexcused absences, and tend to be more informed about politics.
Keywords Extracurricular Activity; Leadership Skills; Leadership Studies; Organizational Activities; Policy-Making; School-Based Management; Social Activities; Students' Association; Student Council; Student Leadership
A student government is a group within a school that is responsible for certain facets of school organization and governance. Usually categorized as an extracurricular activity, student governments are run primarily by students. Their functions are different from school to school; for example, they may act as a liaison between school administrations and students, representing the student body views regarding institutional, local, or national issues. Or, they may oversee specific activities such as fundraising or student clubs. Faculty, staff, and community members may also participate in student governments, in various capacities, depending on the educational institution. Student governments in the United States are common at all school levels today – elementary, middle, and high school, as well as at colleges and universities. The roles they play in the schools and their communities are diverse – some have large budgets and great power in their learning communities; others are smaller and hold modest sway over school policymaking.
Student Governance in Public Schools
Student participation in governance of their educational institution has a long and diverse history. In K-12 education there are a variety of examples throughout educational history in which students have been involved in school management. Vineyard and Poole (1930) note that at Plato's Academy, pupils elected students for certain school tasks every ten days. Other European schools decreed that students be allowed to participate in school governance side by side with the administration. Structures included senates made up of representatives elected by students in 16th century Germany, schools that assigned "monitors" (an older student as an assistant teacher) in 18th century India, and assemblies that were chosen each month in 18th century America. Monitorial schools also found their way to America, and became a tool to teach students how to handle affairs that would prepare them for life after school (McGown, 1944).
The goals behind student participation in school governance today vary widely. In the United States, K-12 participation in student government is often used as a tool for civic training – helping students understand the process of democracy, rather than giving students actual power to influence policy. Goals also include teaching teamwork and participation, as well as the ideals of a democratic state (Vineyard & Poole, 1930).
Student Governance in Higher Education
Student governance in higher education began as university learning expanded. Universities in their early days were very loosely organized – interested students traveled to those individuals who were willing to teach them. By the 13th century, the numbers of students and teachers had increased so dramatically that improved guidelines and management was necessary, and began within the institutions (McGown, 1944). The convening of student nations at universities in Bologna beginning in the 12th century, which brought together students from similar regions, is one of the earliest examples of student governance. These nations elected representatives who helped run the day-to-day activities of the school (McGown, 1944).
In the history of American higher education, the first institution known to encourage student participation was the College of William & Mary, in the late 18th century. The students elected representatives to a council who handled discipline issues. Other examples of student governments were established at Oberlin College, founded in 1833, which not only gained recognition for admitting all students, regardless of race, but also allowed significant participation from students regarding management issues (McGown, 1944). Other forms of student organization and governance in higher education were organized by students due to dissatisfaction with characteristics of life within college institutions. For example, the concept of fraternities sprouted from poor living conditions, literary clubs sprung from the lack of library resources, and athletic teams formed of students seeking a respite from the heavy emphasis on classroom learning (Hodgekinson, 1971, as cited by Miller & Nadler, 2006). These organizations were also precursors to student governments as we know them today.
In the 1900s, student governments began playing a larger role in the social aspects of colleges and universities, and by the 1960s students at many institutions were demanding increased student participation regarding the decision-making process at schools across the country (Hodgekinson, 1971, as cited by Miller & Nadler, 2006). After World War II, the rapid growth of colleges and universities in the United States fueled the expansion of student governments to help operate these schools (Mackey, III, 2006). The highly politicized atmosphere of the 1960s led to increased demand for student involvement (Miller & Nadler, 2006). In the 1970s however, interest in student governments diminished, and many disappeared (Mackey, III, 2006). Since the 1970s student governments have become prevalent again in all levels and types of education.
Student Governments Today
Today, student governments are present in nearly all schools across the country, in K-12 public schools, private schools and in higher education. Factors that increased the number of student governments include the rise of local, state, and national organizations that supported student governance, the growth of extracurricular activities, and the emphasis on teaching leadership in schools (McGown, 1944). There are many parallels to be found between the American government and student councils. Many have a written Constitution and bylaws, outlining the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. Members of student governments are often elected by their peers, and election procedures may include debates, speeches, and various ceremonies. Minutes are taken during meetings, and reported to peers, administrators, and/or other bodies that the council may represent or work with (McGown, 1944).
General Organizational Structure
There are many permutations of student government organization – it is unlikely there are two student governments in the entire country that are the same. Student governments may differ in the number of people involved, the types of responsibilities and tasks that they are responsible for, and the configuration of the organization (McGown, 1944).
Titles and offices organize student governments internally. Possible offices or titles include President, Vice-president, Secretary, Treasurer, and representatives. Individuals involved may also include leaders from various clubs, living quarters, or homerooms. All of these individuals will have specified roles depending on the responsibilities of the student government:
• The President and vice-president are most often responsible for planning meetings and running them in an efficient manner while delegating duties.
• The secretary will record minutes, attend to correspondence needed, and create documents.
• The treasurer is responsible for overseeing any financial activities of the student governments or the groups that the student government manages and oversees. For example, in many colleges, student governments are responsible for distributing money from student activities budgets to various clubs and organizations. The treasurer acts as the point person for all of these discussions and transactions.
• Other officers may represent the interests of their homeroom, club, or housemates.
A student government may be made up of officers through election or appointment. When student government officers are elected, they may be elected at the beginning of a year for that year, or at the end of the year, to be inaugurated the following year. Schools may also hold elections twice, to account for the cyclical nature of education institutions (McGown, 1944).
The structure of a student government will depend upon the school and its needs. In K-12 student governments often elect representatives from homerooms or classrooms, or by grade. In a more complex institution, such as a large university, there may be many other representatives from clubs, sports teams, or fraternities and sororities. The organization of a student council may be very simple to very complex. They may involve only a few students, or hundreds of students. Student governments may be directly overseen by faculty or administration, or may be...
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