The Assembly Education Committee unanimously advanced legislation today that would grant middle and high school students one excused absence every school year to participate in a civic event, marking an initial success for a coalition of high school activists who first began pushing for the bill nearly a year ago.
Under the bill’s provisions, as long as their parents or guardians provide written notification to the school at least five days in advance, students in 6th through 12th grades could attend events sponsored by government entities, nonprofits, or other civic-minded organizations in place of one day of school.
Rachel Gurevich, a senior at East Brunswick High School and the chair of the New Jersey High School Democrats, testified at today’s committee hearing that the bill could help increase voter turnout among young adults, who vote at lower rates than other age groups.
“One of the primary ways to encourage political participation is by empowering students to participate in lobbying days, political demonstrations, voter registration drives, meeting with elected officials, and attending legislative events,” she said. “Replacing one day of classroom attendance with firsthand experience can guarantee a lifetime of voter participation.”
Her counterpart at the New Jersey High School Republicans, Bridgewater-Raritan High School junior William Atkins, noted the irony of coming to Trenton to testify on a school day.
“Somewhat ironically, I am here partaking in such an important part of our state legislative process – and yet I am unexcused from school,” Atkins said. “Under the bill, all students would have the opportunity to do exactly what we are doing today, and more.”
Gurevich and Atkins said that their organizations, along with the Young Eco-socialists of New Jersey, first started gathering support for the bill last year; Assemblymen Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff) and Sterley Stanley (D-East Brunswick) joined as sponsors and the bill was sent to the Assembly Education Committee in May 2021, but it never received a hearing.
Sterley and Rooney reintroduced the bill this year to greater success, though a parallel bill has yet to be introduced in the Senate.
“An engaged citizenry is what our democracy is all about and it starts with involving our youth in civic activities early on,” Stanley said in a statement today following his bill’s advancement. “Allowing middle school and high school students to participate in civic events is very important as they learn who they are and how they want to contribute in this world.”
This story was updated at 5:36 p.m. with a statement from Assemblyman Stanley. It was updated again on March 12 to reflect the fact that the Young Eco-Socialists of New Jersey were also involved in the bill’s introduction and success.