Participatory budgeting in schools gives students practice in direct democracy

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Schools across the U.S. and Europe are showing promising results from an innovation in civic education that gives students real power over real money

By Claudia Goodine

Students at a high school in Queens, New York were given the choice of how to spend a few thousand dollars in 2019 on whatever they wanted to improve their school community.

They opted for a greenhouse to grow food they could donate to a local homeless shelter.

It’s just one example of the kind of projects that can come to fruition when students are given decision-making power through a process known as participatory budgeting - an innovative form of direct democracy where community members control part of a public budget.

“I've never seen something quite like this, where we as students can take initiative on something and see how we can make a change in our own community,” says Veritas Academy alumnus Akshay Kumar.

Participatory budgeting first started in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1980s and since then it’s been used in over 7,000 cities around the world by local governments, housing authorities and, most recently, schools.

Once a pot of money is set aside, students form a participatory budgeting steering committee to lead the process. Sometimes this is part of a class project and coupled with a civics class. Students form groups to research and develop proposals, pitch ideas to their peers and eventually the most feasible ones are voted on by the whole school.

At Veritas Academy, a public school in Flushing, north-central Queens, 120 twelfth grade students spent four months developing and pitching proposals for how to spend $2,000 put forward by the city and an extra $2,000 matched by the school for one of the first participatory budgeting experiments of its kind in the state.

On voting day, it came down to a filtered water station, a multi-purpose studio and the greenhouse.

Kumar says it felt empowering to cast a vote for a proposal he and his peers had worked so hard on, a proposal that had a real chance of being funded and could have a real impact not only now, but in the future.

Five hundred and thirty students and a few dozen teachers, parents and community members voted, with the greenhouse winning by a landslide. In addition to purchasing the greenhouse (still waiting to be set up due to the pandemic), the school has created a horticultural elective around the project. Meanwhile, the process behind it made a lasting impression on the young people involved.

“I want to be able to come back, maybe five, six years down the line, and see we were a part of that. We made that.”

Participatory budgeting has given students similar experiences in direct democracy in high schools in Phoenix and Dallas, in elementary schools in Chelsea, Quebec, in high-need schools across the state of New York and schools country-wide in Portugal. Scotland is exploring ways to integrate it into the education system; meanwhile, the public health department in Tacoma, Washington helped facilitate participatory projects in schools in one of the highest-need communities in the region, giving students a direct say in how to invest $100,000.

Funded by a variety of sources (from principals’ discretionary funds and PTAs’ fundraising to city councils and school districts) these experiments all involve the same basic idea: put youth in charge of real money and allow them to make decisions that have real-world consequences.

Civic education for the 21st century

Voter turn-out in Canada among people aged 18 to 24 remained the lowest of all other age demographics for the last decade, according to Elections Canada, with a gap of more than 20 percentage points between them and voters aged 65 to 74 in the 2015 election, and remaining low in the 2019 election.

Robin Prest, program director for Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, says implementing similar projects in schools in Canada could go a long way in strengthening participation and our democratic culture.

Civic education traditionally relies on instilling knowledge of political institutions, jurisdictional divisions and electoral processes. As important as it is to understand the overall mechanics of democracy, there’s an age-old saying, backed by neuroscience, that we learn best by doing.

“There are so many students experiencing a form of civic education that treats them like empty vessels to be stuffed with knowledge,” says Prest, “and that is not the culture of democracy we should build.”

“The culture of democracy we should build is one of active participation.”

Youth inherit the state of our democratic system but end up having the least amount of influence over it, says Prest.

People who take part in participatory budgeting processes are more likely to vote, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), which provides training and resources, including an online course with lesson plans for educators, on how to implement participatory budgeting in schools and other institutions.

People for Education, an Ontario based charity focused on strengthening public education, asks in an article about the purpose of civic literacy in schools: “If civic literacy is about much more than how government works, then shouldn’t we be teaching it throughout the school experience, not just in a few subjects?”

Phoenix Union School District creates transformational change

Phoenix Union became the first school district in the U.S. to demonstrate how to do participatory budgeting on a wide scale through the efforts of Cyndi Tercero-Sandova, the district’s family and community engagement manager and an award-winning expert in dropout prevention and supporting youth.

What started as a small pilot project in 2013 using a principal’s discretionary fund expanded to five high schools in 2016, continuing every year since. Neighbouring school districts and middle schools started getting interested and now it’s being used in 4 school districts across Arizona.

Tercero-Sandova describes hesitancy over the idea at first as teachers and staff were walking out in strike at the time over school funding. People thought spending money on an experiment with students might be irresponsible given limited school resources. After working with youth for over 24 years, however, she insisted on trusting the students.

“Folks were so surprised with the thoughtfulness, the work, how dedicated they were to this process, and how re