Howard County students will still have a say in the pupil who represents the district’s entire student body on the board of education, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled Wednesday.

The court turned away a challenge to allowing public school students, but not those who attend private schools, to vote on their representative on the school board, saying the process does not violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause, nor the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

“The process does not exclude students because of their religious exercise. Rather, it excludes students who choose not to attend public school for whatever reason,” Judge Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. wrote for the court.

A district court dismissed the parents’ claims. The appeals court upheld that decision. Chief Judge Albert Diaz and Judge Roderick Young joined Quattlebaum’s opinion.

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Two Howard County parents sued the school board in 2021, claiming the process of selecting the student member violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Lisa Kim, whose son attends a private Catholic school, also argued that the process violates the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause because it shuts out students who, for religious reasons, choose to attend nonpublic schools.

Those eligible to become the student member of the board must be a “regularly enrolled junior or senior student from a Howard County public school,” the court said. The student serves a one-year term.

While Howard County students in the sixth through 11th grades ultimately vote for one of the two final candidates, there is a multistep selection process, and the school board has to confirm the winning student.

Kim, along with William Holland, the parent of a public school student, argued the voting process “dilutes” the votes of all other eligible Howard County residents who are not in the sixth through 11th grade.

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They said an 18-year-old student can vote for the student member in addition to adult school board members, allowing them to vote for more board members than other Howard County voters.

In Howard County, five of the seven board members are voted on based on council districts, while the final two at-large members are selected by all eligible voters.

Amy Marshak, the attorney representing the school board in this case and the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law said in a statement to The Baltimore Banner, “We are pleased that the Fourth Circuit has upheld the constitutionality of Howard County’s student board member selection process, as the Maryland Supreme Court already has done under state law. Student board members play an important role in shaping public education in Howard County, and we are glad that public school students can continue to have a voice in the selection process.”

The parents are represented by attorneys at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on election integrity, and The Smith Appellate Law Firm.

“We are disappointed in today’s ruling,” J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation said in a statement. “In America, you should not give someone or a group of people greater political representation than anyone else. In Howard County, Maryland that is exactly what is happening. Children voting for school board have greater representation than adults.”

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In the foundation’s fact sheet about the case, it defined the county’s student member selection process a “child voting scheme.”

In Maryland, all public school districts have a student member on their respective boards of education, as does the Maryland State Board of Education.

In Howard County, the student member can vote on all issues facing the school board except decisions pertaining to personnel, the school budget or restricted matters. A student has served on Howard’s board of education since 2007, the court said.

In 2020, two other parents scrutinized the voting role of Howard’s student member of the board. They sued the school board after the student member voted against reopening schools in late 2020, leaving the board with a stalemate decision of 4-4. The parents lost the suit.

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