So what’s the deal with Student Government, anyway?

Investigative

Student Government is a KO fixture. It has been around for generations. But apart from its members, practically nobody on campus thinks about it all that often.

The lack of student interest in the boards their elected peers comprise is not a unique characteristic of the KO community. Apathy toward student governments in educational institutions is an industry-wide trend that has persisted for decades, if not since these boards came into being.

Obscure as they are, when and how did their presence become so ubiquitous? Why do they persist even as generation after generation talk of reforming or fundamentally transforming them? Who serves on them, and what do they do to improve our community?

Since the early 20th century, student governments have existed in nearly every school across America. Their proponents believed that allowing students to participate in a representative democracy would allow them to discover the strength of democracy when removed from the dominant two-party system of today.

In the Kingswood School’s early years, its history book relates, the student government was an informal organization, which it attributes to the student body’s significantly smaller size at that time.

Appointed prefects, which existed as early as 1917, and the elected “student council” met infrequently with the Headmaster about student issues and helped plan certain events.

As the school grew and changed, concerns about the efficacy of this arrangement arose, leading to the formation of the present Student Government Association (SGA) during the 1954-1955 school year and the drafting of its first Constitution. One stated goal of that first constitution: making Student Government “truly representative.”

One hundred years later, so many aspects of that student council system remain intact in today’s student government association, with its core promotion of democracy sounding not unlike what one might hear in a discussion today.

The Kingswood Oxford school of today certainly differs in countless ways from the extremely insular, all-male Kingswood School, but its student government remains strikingly similar – in both positive and negative ways –  in terms of its functions as an organization and the dialogue regarding its perception.

“For the most part [SGA does] represent us,” junior Abby Baier said. “But sometimes it feels that the basis of student government is more about popularity than it is representation.”

To this day, KO’s student government continues to reckon with this perception.

“It’s really hard to get past the popularity contest in terms of the election,”  student government faculty advisor and English teacher Mela Frye said. “We talk about it sort of perennially, as administrators; what can we do to make this more equitable?”

The most recent SGA Constitution, written in 2019, continued the work of the various constitutions that preceded it, starting back in 1955. It initiated changes such as providing more opportunities for students to run for office, and creating an obligation for the Student Government Association  to choose a charity at the beginning of each school year to benefit from its fundraising efforts.

 Furthermore, the current Speaker of the student government, David Shi, ran and was elected in part on a platform of bringing more transparency to the organization, including by inviting the public to attend meetings and participate in discussions of the council’s proposals.

On Monday, September 26, the annual elections for student government representatives began.

Forms 4-6 elected senators, and Form 3 students elected their president and vice president. Form 3 senator elections will occur later in the year to allow students who were not elected president or vice president a chance to run for senator and still be members of the student government.

 KO’s student government is elected by a direct democracy with each student’s ballot – well, each Google Form – factoring equally.

The number of representatives each form has is dependent on the grade. Forms 3 and 4 have two senators each, while forms 5 and 6 elect three senators to represent them, in addition to each form’s president and vice president.

 Presiding over the student government is the Speaker of the Upper School, a non-voting member elected by the Upper School, that runs meetings and presides over the overall function of student government.

The speaker also serves as the main source of connection between the student government and the faculty and school community, most visibly by coordinating with faculty to run weekly assemblies.

Intriguingly, the speaker also has the power to appoint additional members to the SGA at will, although such power has not been used in recent memory.

Additionally, the Upper School as a whole also elects a secretary and a treasurer, both of whom are voting members, elected in the same spring election as the speaker.

The treasurer keeps track of KO’s budget, while the secretary takes minutes for each SGA meeting that are to be accessible for both the student council and greater student body to view. Currently, said notes are not in fact publicly available, but in general, the SGA functions effectively and as intended.

Right now, the student government is just starting up; after all, elections are hardly in the rearview mirror. All the same, the group has already been hard at work planning the upcoming Homecoming and Hewett Day, both of which were canceled last year  due to COVID-19, and that will hopefully bring a strong sense of community back to KO’s campus.

Student government is only as representative or unrespresentative, effective or dithering, transparent or oblique as its members and voters allow it to be.

KO’s student body may not think about their student government too much in their day-to-day, but when it comes time to vote, they demonstrate a solid level of civic engagement.

By the numbers, student turnout seems to be relatively consistent, but it does seem to fluctuate with the importance of the position.

In the last two elections, an average of 63 students per form voted for senator and 69 per form for presidential candidates.

As a percentage, KO’s voter turnout far outstrips the national average for presidential elections, which hovers at around 55%.

“I think [SGA has] done a good job,” junior Charlotte Eberle said, “considering [COVID-19] and what they could and couldn’t do, but I think there’s always room for improvement.”

Senior Nate Brodrick agreed. “I feel like the people we vote for represent our community well,” he said.

As for its members: a student government isn’t run by whoever was popular enough to find their way in but by the members who show up to each meeting, actively participate, help come up with ideas and schedule events, and find themselves coming back year after year to keep doing that work, unceremonious as it may be.

“As students get older and get more experienced, they put a lot more interest in student government…” David said, who spoke to his personal experience with KO that led him to pursue the Speaker position. “Who I am as a person has changed in the six years that I’ve been at KO because of what the school has done for me. And I feel that I want to give back in a way.”

Political science teacher Mr. Levine put it simplest of all: “It seems that the people who run are the people who want to do something; people for whom it’s not their thing don’t run.”

 Student governments are as ubiquitous to high schools as it gets, and KO is no exception. Through the changing tides of small-d democratic popularity in America, the Student Government Association provides a constant outlet for civic engagement on campus that attracts and inspires a culture of participation and community on campus.