Adam Cronkright is the co-founder and director of Democracy in Practice. The nonprofit focuses on reinventing student government, and has worked primarily in schools in Bolivia. Democracy in Practice is part of a growing movement of democratic innovation, challenging traditional approaches to governance all around the world.
This is the first in a four-part series about Democracy in Practice’s work replacing student elections with lotteries in schools in Bolivia. It speaks to students learning early about ways in which they can directly impact their own governments by participating in Deliberative Democracy, a key role in Building A New Reality.
By Adam Cronkright
Imagine a world in which schools didn’t teach math.
Any students interested in learning algebra or trigonometry could only do so in an after-school math club. And imagine that each school’s math club was reserved for a few popular and high-achieving students, no one else.
Fortunately, we don’t live in that world. Although not every student receives the same support or reaches the same level, each has the right to a basic foundation and the opportunity to advance in math, as in other important subjects like science, art, and language—popularity be damned.
But what about civic and leadership education?
Schools may teach students about the three branches of government, but few provide courses specifically aimed at developing civic and leadership skills. For example, how many of us left high school able to effectively facilitate a meeting?
The only formal tool for hands-on learning in this domain is typically an extracurricular club called ‘student government’ or ‘student council.’ And because student governments are formed through competitive school-wide elections, they are usually comprised of a few popular and high-achieving students, no one else.
Our organization, Democracy In Practice, is changing this.
We are a nonprofit, dedicated to democratic innovation in educational contexts. For the past six years, we have helped schools in Bolivia take three major steps to transform student government. We started our work in Bolivia because one of our co-founders is from there, but the changes I share here could make student government a richer and more inclusive educational experience across the globe.
Lotteries: From Popularity to Probability
The first and most important step in reinventing student government has been replacing competitive elections with voluntary lotteries.
Lotteries give all interested students an equal chance (probability) to become a representative, and develop civic and leadership skills—popularity be damned. Moreover, because lotteries don’t disadvantage shyer and less popular students, they form student governments that are far more diverse and representative than those formed through elections.
Not only are lotteries more fair and inclusive, they are also more fun. Each participant experiences a moment when they could win, and their excitement isn’t tainted by questions of popularity and fear of rejection. It’s not surprising, then, that the students and teachers in these schools have preferred lotteries to the old popularity contests.
Using lotteries to select representatives is not new.
Over 2,000 years ago, Athenian citizens used lotteries to fill most public offices. Today, lotteries are being used around the world to form citizens assemblies that weigh in on important policy decisions (see Brett Hennig’s post). Democracy in Practice appears to be the first organization to use this ancient, democratic practice to select student representatives, and we’ll explore some surprising implications of this innovative use in future articles.
Rotation to Increase Participation
After lotteries, the second step toward transforming student government has been introducing various forms of rotation.
We eliminated the traditional position of President and rotated presidential responsibilities, so that every student representative learns to set agendas, facilitate meetings, and speak in front of the school.
Additionally, we shortened their term lengths from a full school year to a semester. This rotation of office is inspired by the regular rotation of leadership in the traditional ayllu system of government, which is still practiced in many indigenous Bolivian communities. The shorter terms give more students a chance to participate in student government, while still affording them enough time to have a rich and memorable experience.
Empowerment and Encouragement
The third and final step in this transformation has been empowering student governments.
We provide extensive capacity building and educator support, such as:
- facilitation training
- public speaking workshops, and
- help with project management
We also encourage student representatives to go beyond the typical task of organizing a school dance, to work on real and consequential initiatives of their choosing.
As a result, we’ve seen them acquire recycling bins and first aid kits for their schools, undertake reforestation projects, and even open a library. They’ve cut student transportation costs, organized and financed school-wide trips to museums and botanical gardens, and pressured local authorities to make school repairs and improve school lunches.
In the process, they’ve met directly with principles, PTAs, district directors, police, non-profits, mayors, and even the Minister of Education. This experience builds their
- social skills
- self-esteem, and
- familiarity with school and local government
These are three simple but important steps.
Lotteries open student government to everyone, rotation increases participation, and proper support empowers students to tackle real issues they care about. At least in these schools, just as every student has an opportunity to learn and excel in math, every student has a chance to develop civic skills and become a leader.
Now imagine a world in which that’s true for every student in every school.
Lotteries and student governments working together
Adam Cronkright is the co-founder and director of Democracy in Practice. The nonprofit focuses on reinventing student government and has worked primarily in schools in Bolivia. Democracy in Practice is part of a growing movement of democratic innovation that is challenging traditional approaches to governance all around the world.