Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of Virginia youths, students across the commonwealth will likely soon be able to get time off school to participate in civic events.
HB 1940, introduced by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, seeks to allow middle- and high-school students to have at least one day-long excused absence a year in order to engage in a civic or political event.
The bill has been championed by Virginia students both Democrat and Republican, including Western Albemarle High School senior Hadrien Padilla.
Padilla, who serves as the southside regional chair for the Virginia Young Democrats, was one of several students who worked over the last several months to lobby lawmakers and testify in favor of the legislation.
When Padilla testified on behalf of the bill recently, he said, he ended up missing a couple classes due to a delay during the General Assembly session.
“I ended up saying in my testimony that had this policy been in place already, I could have just emailed my teachers and explained the situation and not gotten any unexcused absences for it,” he said.
According to the county schools attendance policy, civic engagement is among the list of reasons a student can receive an excused absence. A student can also receive an excused absence if their parents or guardians have prior knowledge or have consented to the absence.
HB 1940 seeks to emulate a policy in place in Fairfax City Schools, which explicitly allows students to have time off to participate in civic or political engagement.
In an unusual move, the Virginia Young Democrats collaborated with the Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia to get the HB 1940 passed, with representatives from both organizations speaking in favor of the bill during House of Delegates and Senate committee meetings.
Padilla said Matt Savage, chair of the Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus, reached out to the leaders of the Federation of Teenage Republicans and helped make sure the legislation worked for both parties.
As a result, members from both organizations advocated for the bill, drawing on their different strengths and perspectives.
“I worked to coordinate and make sure we had one high schooler from both organizations to testify each day,” Padilla said. “We now have a group chat with their leaders and we communicate with them on different stuff and try to understand each other’s perspectives, too.”
Brady Hillis, chairman of the Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia, was one of the teens who spoke in favor of the bill in front of the House of Delegates.
During a Jan. 18 House of Delegates Education Committee meeting, Hillis said the bipartisan bill would not only help students get involved in politics, but also create opportunities students can use for career and college readiness.
“I’ve heard some of the opposition to this legislation and I believe most of the opposition points are based in ‘civic’ and ‘political’ not being clearly defined to some saying we should be leaving it up to the individual school boards,” Hillis said. “From my experience, my school board is politically aligned one way and so are the administrators, so if I were to request for something like this to be passed at the local level, the door would be slammed in my face.”
The bill ultimately passed the education committee on a 17-5 vote, but not before attracting criticism from Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, who argued the decision to allow students time off for political and civic work should be left to principals and not the General Assembly.
In an email to the Daily Progress, Avoli said he is not opposed to each school district setting policies for excusing these types of absences and cannot imagine an example in which a principal would deny a civically-engaged student the ability to get involved and be excused from school.
Echoing points made in the committee hearing, Avoli said he believes it “is not the job of bureaucracy to dictate policy to elected local officials on how to best educate students” and “the issue of excused vs. unexcused absences does not change whether or not a student receives his or her daily education or must complete assignments.”
“When I spoke to school board members and superintendents in the school districts I represent, they unanimously opposed HB 1940 for the reasons I listed above,” he said. “I think we are tasked with bigger issues in Richmond than telling School Boards what absences they must excuse.”
The bill passed the House in late January on a 62-37 vote, with eight of those votes coming from Republican delegates. The bill’s Senate companion, SB 1439, passed on a 25-14 vote on Wednesday. Both bills must still cross over, but proponents of the legislation are confident in their success.
Padilla and his bipartisan colleagues have already turned their attention to advocating for legislation that would allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote when obtaining a driver’s license.
“I think there’s definitely gonna be some voicing of concerns, but I expect it to pass, and I really hope it’ll lay on [Gov. Ralph Northam’s] desk,” Padilla said. “I think it is really important to note that middle and high school students represent 20% of the commonwealth’s population and I think that over a fifth of the population definitely needs to have a way to voice their opinions, even if they’re still that young.”