In 2016, the Phoenix (Arizona) Union High School District implemented a participatory budgeting process, becoming the first U.S. school district in the United States to use participatory budgeting to allocate district wide funds.
Problems and Purpose
School districts are responsible for operating large and complex budgets, often while receiving little input from the students and community members they serve. School Participatory Budgeting (PB) can help students and parents better understand school budgets, can channel resources to address urgent needs, and can encourage the development of creative solutions. Also, PB in schools provides leadership opportunities for students to learn democracy and participate in active citizenship. The Phoenix Union High School District PB process aimed to develop student leadership, amplify student voices, and build respectful relationships between students, teachers, and administrators.
Background History and Context
Participatory budgeting has been used in hundreds of localities around the world since its development in Brazil in the 1980s. A number of PB projects have focused on youth involvement. For example, in 2013, a participatory-budgeting program was begun at Bioscience High School in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Boston, Massachusetts, USA began a participatory budgeting process for youth in 2014. In 2015, a participatory budgeting program was begun in Sullivan High School in Chicago, Illinois, USA. In 2016, the Participatory Budgeting Project partnered with the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) to coordinate for the first time in the U.S. a school-district-wide PB process.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Participatory Budgeting Project—a non-profit organization that helps people start participatory budgeting processes— helped PUHSD plan their process. Funding for the process was provided through the PUHSD budget.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The number of participants in the project was vast, and included 3,854 students from five high schools. Participation appears to have been voluntary, with some targeted recruitment, since "all schools prioritized plans to include students that don’t often engage in school processes." Others involved in the process include school district staff, city officials, and community organizers from the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, and Fresno, California.
Methods and Tools Used
Participatory budgeting was the method used in the PUHSD process. Although there were some differences in the details of the procedures employed in different schools, all five schools involved in the PUHSD process used a three-stage PB process, involving the generation of ideas, a several-month-long period of developing complete proposals from those ideas, and voting to choose which proposals would be implemented. During the idea-generation stage, some schools used "online forms to collect project ideas", though which online system was used for these forms isn't clear.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The process involve mostly face-to-face communication. In each high school, idea generation occurred student committees in single classrooms, the student government, and larger student-body assemblies; some schools used an online platform. Six months after the collection of ideas for projects, students had the opportunity to vote, during a week-long process, on real voting machines, through collaboration with the local election commission. About 80 percent of students—a total of 3,854 students in all five high schools—turned out to vote. Among the winning PB projects were hydration/filtered water stations, renovating and repainting some of the school cafeterias, and a Digital Music Performance & Recording Club. The process extended beyond Phoenix as "[c]ity staff and community organizers from" Tempe, Arizona, "Fresno, California, and Toronto, Ontario" observed the voting and engaged in discussions with students, teachers, and staff.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
This process appears to have had significant impact on the participants, terms of learning, leadership, creativity, compassion, confidence, political efficacy, and social ties. For example, one PUHSD PB student budget delegate reported, “Now I understand so much more about how our school relates to the district, how our funding and facilities improvements work, and how I can make a difference here.” Several students reported that PB participation had boosted "their own self-confidence and ability to talk with fellow students about how to improve their school." Teachers reported "seeing students learn and lead with great creativity and compassion." The process also increased social ties among students, as it enabled friendships to develop between students in different grades.
Increased social ties were also an outcome for teachers, who reported that involvement in PB allowed them to “develop stronger relationships with students outside their regular classes.”
The process has also had a profound impact on how administrators view student participation in decision-making. For example, “the PUHSD Executive Director of Logistics was so excited to see so much student interest in school maintenance and facilities that he’s planning to incorporate student input and participation into school improvement initiatives."
PUHSD Superintendent Dr. Chad Gestson's overall assessment was very favorable: “'If there are any schools or districts across the country that are thinking about doing school PB, in our opinion it’s a no-brainer."
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The PUHSD participatory-budgeting process seemed to address most of its goals, in terms of increasing participants' understanding of school budgets, fostering creativity, enabling students to develop leadership and citizenship skills, giving students a voice in school governance, and improving constructive social ties among school communities. The available reports don't make clear whether the projects elected by the PUHSD participatory-budgeting process addressed important needs.
 Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C., Röcke, A., & Allegretti, G. (2012). Transnational models of citizen participation: The case of participatory budgeting. Journal of Public Deliberation, 8(2), Article 9. Retrieved from https://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol8/iss2/art9/
 Cohen, M., Schugurensky, D., & Wiek, A. (2015). Citizenship education through participatory budgeting: The case of bioscience High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Curriculum and Teaching, 30(2), 5-26. doi:10.7459/ct/30.2.02
 Russon Gilman, H. (2016). Democracy reinvented: Participatory budgeting and civic innovation in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
 PB Project. (n.d.). PB at Sullivan High School. PB Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.pbchicago.org/sullivan-high-school.html
 Brennan, A. (2016, October 20). Phoenix school are making history again with PB. Participatory Budgeting Project. Retrieved from https://www.participatorybudgeting.org/phoenix-schools-are-making-history-again-with-pb/
 Brennan, A. (2017, April 19). What happens when students lead PB? Participatory Budgeting Project. Retrieved from https://www.participatorybudgeting.org/what-happens-when-students-lead-pb/
Images, from Brennan (2016, 2017), are posted with permission of the Participatory Budgeting Project.
The original submission of this case entry was written by Johnisha Graham, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The views expressed in the current version are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.