Real leadership opportunities transform students by giving them the chance to use their voices in meaningful ways. Participatory Budgeting (PB) in schools has proven to be precisely that kind of opportunity for students across the United States. PB is a process that empowers community members by engaging them to decide how to spend part of a public budget to improve their community. Since beginning in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, it has been adopted by cities across the world, demonstrating the transformative power of participation. In the United States, the PB process typically follows five phases: design the process, collect ideas, turn ideas into project proposals, vote on projects, and implement winning projects.

Students and families lead the same PB process in schools. Ideas about how to improve the school are collected during a brainstorming phase. The list of ideas is discussed, researched, and vetted for feasibility and cost; then the proposals are finalized. Once priority projects are established, school community members vote for the project(s) they think should win. Finally, the winning projects are announced and implemented!


Real Skills, Real Influence

The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) partners with organizations and individuals to promote PB as a foundation for lifelong civic engagement, and through this work, we've learned that PB provides more than that: PB provides transformative educational experiences for students and educators alike. Educators who work most closely with students on the PB process sharpen their skills as facilitators, communicate in ways that invite and make room for student voice, and model the importance of equity as a foundation for the PB process.

To engage in the PB process, students connect with and speak to peers and adults to solicit and discuss ideas for improving their school. Not only can students learn about how budgets work, but they also hone their listening, problem-solving, and communication skills. The empowering experiences of leadership and community-building leave students more vocal, more confident, and more comfortable speaking to or in front of new people.

Through PB, students have real power over real money. During the last three years of doing PB in Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD), 30,000 students have voted on how $250,000 of district funds should be spent to improve their campuses. To connect the PB experience to broader civic engagement, participating schools in Phoenix have included municipal voter registration in their events. In total, PB in PUHSD has registered 3,135 students as voters, enabling them to participate in both state and national elections.

Participation is Spreading

PB has been successful in many schools and districts. The process can be adapted and designed with students to fit specific contexts or goals. Here are some districts where PB is growing:

  • Phoenix Union High School District (Arizona): Since starting with a single high school campus in 2013, PB has spread to 18 high schools as of this school year.
  • New York City Department of Education (New York): In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to launching PB in all 400+ public high schools across the city as part of the Civics for All initiative.
  • Brooklyn Public School 139 (New York): The Parent Association launched PB in this elementary school to provide a transparent and community-engaged way to spend funds for improving the school. The principal was so impressed, she added additional funds to the pot.
  • Walker Upper Elementary School (Virginia): In 2018, Walker Upper Elementary School did PB for the first time with a process focused on creating a healthier school environment.

These examples are just a few among many successful school PB processes. Setting aside school or district funds each year helps create a sustainable PB cycle, but with some funds coming from parent associations, fundraising, and grants, there are many ways to get the process off the ground at your school. Get started with our free guide, webinar, and other resources.

This blog post was originally published on the ASCD website.