Virginia’s General Assembly is on the verge of passing a bill that allows middle and high schoolers to take an absence in order to stay civically involved, and one Marshall High student is largely to thank.
Matthew Savage is the chair of the Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus who wanted to make it easier for students to get involved in government activities, and not just make it an avenue for those most passionate about it (like him). So while the state’s legislature convened for a special session last summer, the idea dawned on the Marshall High junior — why not take the idea of the permitted partial day absence adopted by Fairfax County’s school system and give that opportunity to the whole state?
After getting Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) to get behind HB 1940, big names started to follow. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful in Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Lieutenant Governor hopeful in Del. Haya Ayala (D-Richmond) supported the bill, as did Fairfax County’s Democratic Committee and the Democratic Party of Virginia Central Committee, making the two-month process of clearing both the state’s house of delegates and senate a formality before it becomes established law.
“It has energized students to get involved in politics,” Savage said. “And it goes beyond the classroom experience that you hear so many political leaders and teachers talk about all the time. It’s about learning outside of the classroom, and there’s been no downside to it in terms of attendance since accreditation ratings have been the same for the past three years.”
To be clear, there’s no evidence to suggest that Fairfax County students abuse the new privilege because it’s not hawkishly tracked by the school system itself.
Lucy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Fairfax schools, said that they don’t have a precise number of how many civic-related absences have been taken over the past year since “there are many factors that weigh in and count as ‘pre-approved absences’ in advance and they are not broken out in this way.”
Although Caldwell added that, anecdotally, principals only say positive things about the policy and they haven’t reported any instances of abuse, even if the Covid-19 pandemic’s message of staying at home has likely put a cap on the enthusiasm some students had previously.
“So far, this seems to have been a helpful way for students to learn and be involved in their communities,” Caldwell said. “Many students learn hands-on, and when they see the results of their work, it can have a very positive and long-lasting impact on them.”
Given that support for greater civic engagement originated from one side of the aisle, it could seem like the legislation is primarily intended to serve the youth of one party. But Savage talked about how the Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia joined the advocacy for the bill as well when other major Democratic politicians were signing on.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the bipartisan interest was a large part of the reason why Delegate Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) backed HB 1940. Per the Post’s reporting, that was even as other party delegates, such as G. John Avoli (R-Staunton), felt that making this law go over the heads of local school boards was in violation of conservative governing principles.
“When Davis spoke to counter a Republican that was opposed to it, he said that if we leave this to the discretion of school boards, that there would be liberal bias to it,” Savage recounted, while clarifying that he didn’t agree with that point but appreciated Davis’ support nonetheless.
The bill passed through the House by a 62-37 margin, receiving support from seven Republicans. As of Feb. 5, it is slated to be taken up in the General Assembly’s Special Session 1, which will focus on Education and Health.
The desire for high schoolers in particular to become more involved spiked after students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School became nationally known for their activism after a mass shooting at their Parkland, Florida campus.
But that was a different time, when their message of gun control was going against a president who was a full-throated supporter of the Second Amendment. With the lack of a polarizing figure such as former President Donald Trump on the political scene — whose election even inspired a then-7th grade Savage to begin paying more attention to politics — it’s fair to wonder if student activism will remain as passionate. Savage, however, doesn’t see the “civic or political engagement” language used in the bill as a code word for “protests only.”
In fact, he said one area that he and the young Republicans agreed on is how diversely the bill should be interpreted. They wanted the prospective law to be more about meeting with legislators, going to school board meetings or even meeting the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County or the Falls Church City Council to talk about issues that are important to teenagers.
It was never about just attending a protest, but getting a first hand view of how local government and state government operate, in Savage’s mind. It’s likely he’ll get to see how that plays out before he graduates.