I recently published a post about what some public school advocates want to see in President-elect Joe Biden’s Education Department. Now, as Biden and his team decide who will lead that department and succeed Betsy DeVos as education secretary, students are calling on the next president to give them a role in education policy and to prioritize racial and social justice.

This call is in the following post, written by Gabriella Staykova, a high school senior from Lexington, Ky., and a team member at Student Voice, a nonprofit organization led by high school and college students. It was founded in 2020 as weekly Twitter chats using #StuVoice and works in every state to advance student voice and educational equity in schools and communities across the country.

By Gabriella Staykova

As a public school student, as a queer person and as an American, I’m celebrating the impending exit of Betsy DeVos from the [Education] Department.

I no longer have to worry that the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on public education will go ignored, as I did when DeVos funneled $180 million of pandemic relief funds into private and religious school “microgrants.” She did that while my school district, Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Ky., struggled to find the money to bring students one-to-one with technology.

I no longer have to worry that the [Education] Department will fail to protect students like me, as I did when [the department] reduced the rate of corrective action against complaints of LGBTQ harassment under Title IX by nine times under [DeVos’s] tenure.

Most of all, I no longer have to worry that she will keep harming America’s public education through policies that ignore the realities of the typical student experience.

While President-elect Joe Biden’s election returns us to [an Education] Department that will hopefully serve public school students, especially marginalized ones, we still have a long way to go.

To truly know our needs, the Biden administration’s [Education] Department must go beyond working for students to working with them. That’s why I and students across the country at Student Voice are calling on the Biden transition team and his [Education] Department to start with students in all aspects of the agenda, including with the selection of the next secretary of education and the policy priorities implemented in Biden’s first 100 days in office.

First, we need to ensure the Biden administration’s new secretary and undersecretaries of education will be accountable to public school constituents like me, not private interests. In these next four years, the secretary and [Education] Department must listen to students’ and educators’ concerns about everything from school reopenings to Title IX policies to student loan forgiveness, unlike the past administration.

Our new secretary and [Education] Department also must have a deep understanding of and actual experience with our nation’s public education system. Especially amid the multiple crises facing schools right now, the secretary and [Education] Department should be well-attuned to students’ and teachers’ needs. They should be ready on Day One to guide schools safely through the covid-19 pandemic, fight for federal stimulus funding for schools and undo the previous administration’s gutting of the department.

That’s why our next secretary of education being a former public school teacher is so important. The experience of being a direct stakeholder in U.S. public education — of teaching, of engaging with students, of experiencing the realities of schools firsthand — is critical to developing the deep understanding that is necessary to hold the nation’s top education position. Having been taught by public school teachers my whole life, I know their empathy and dedication to all students who pass through their doors cannot be left out of the [Education] Department.

Second, for the same reason that having a former public school teacher as secretary of education is vital, the new [Education] Department must consult students in all decisions that are made about our educations.

Students are schools’ primary stakeholders, and as a result, we have a deep level of expertise about all aspects of the education system.

We know who feels welcome at school and who doesn’t.

We know what resource disparities exist between schools that are well-funded and schools that aren’t.

We know that standardized testing can’t accurately encompass our understanding, that diverse teachers enhance our learning and that we need counselors, not police in our schools.

Though it is important to reach a broad range of students, we must be given opportunities to share our lived experiences that go beyond one-time surveys or surface-level consultation. Instead, we should be true partners of adult policymakers and researchers through being meaningfully involved in the creation of education policies from their inception.

Many states have modeled this student engagement effectively. All across the political spectrum from Montana to California, 18 states have students serving on their state boards of education, and half of all states have students serving on district boards. Adult board members rave about the experiences students bring to discussions about their educations. When a student was introduced to Kentucky’s Board of Education, the state’s secretary of education praised the move as an opportunity to “bring light to problems and offer solutions that simply don’t occur to adults.”

Students also play a role in education policy across the country. In Washington state, members of the Legislative Youth Advisory Council serve on committees, like the Reopening Washington Schools 2020-21 Working Group. Meanwhile, a member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, a student-led education equity group in Kentucky that I’m part of, sat on the legislative School Safety Working Group and helped craft the state’s most comprehensive school safety legislation to date.

It’s time that the U.S. [Education] Department learns what most states already have: integrating students as partners in policymaking improves our education system.

Third, the [Education] Department must prioritize the voices of diverse students, [with diversity] including in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, location, academic performance and more. If at all, the students listened to in conversations about education are often affluent, White and academically high-achieving — in other words, they are like me. We can address the issues in public education best by including underserved students, who experience these flaws directly.

Beyond listening to diverse student voices, the [Education] Department should follow the lead of students in centering racial and social justice in all aspects of its work.

From undoing Trump’s executive order on racial bias training to totally re-examining what “patriotic education” can be in the context of the 1776 Commission to revitalizing the Office of Civil Rights, the [Education] Department can be a powerful force in advancing political and social equality in our country.

The forward-thinking mind-set of students is sorely needed in the department. Years of failure to address inequities in our education system have left us with persistent racial and income-based achievement gaps, now compounded by covid-19. If we don’t address these issues immediately, marginalized students will continue to lose out.

As a public school student, I know firsthand the insight my peers have about their own educations and the policies behind them. We must welcome that insight at all levels in the [Education] Department, including through the facilitation of student feedback on policies, the consultation of students in the selection of the next education secretary and undersecretaries and the inclusion of students on education working groups and committees.

As a queer student, I understand the experience of navigating education spaces that don’t accept or acknowledge me. That’s why the [Education] Department must use a social and racial justice lens for all actions it takes, including in the selection of a diverse group of students to voice their opinions.

And as an American, I recognize the strength a justice- and student-oriented [Education] Department brings to our nation’s schools. It’s time Biden and his transition team did too.