After a canny Facebook-fueled campaign helped him trounce an incumbent, Chase Harrison will take his seat on the Millburn, N.J. Board of Education in January. He’s aiming to loosen rules around Advanced Placement courses by serving on the Board’s program committee. And he’s vowing to “shake things up” at the staid, tight-knit elected body.
Oh, and he just turned 18.
Harrison, a senior at Millburn High School, became the youngest elected official in New Jersey history – and one of the youngest in the nation – when he defeated vice president Rona Wenik this month. Local network NJTV News called it “a stunning upset.”
An award-winning debate champ, Harrison credits his success on the stump to his verbal skills. But using social media to connect with voters also helped elevate his candidacy, he told the Forward. “The level of responsiveness was amazing,” he says. “I got immediate feedback on how citizens felt about issues.”
Harrison lives in Millburn with his parents, Beth and David, two brothers, and a pet guinea pig. The Forward caught up with him after a busy school day.
MICHAEL KAMINER: First of all, why run for an elected office in the first place? It sounds like there’s enough going on with college applications and homework.
CHASE HARRISON: It was two-pronged. First, I have a strong interest in politics, and that’s where I want a career. I figured that just being able to campaign would be great experience. And I knew that if I actually ran, getting elected as a public official at this young age would be unprecedented. Second, Millburn’s known to be one of the best public schools in New Jersey. But it’s also one of most stressful high schools in New Jersey. There’s a lot of pressure on students, a lot of pressure to achieve. Some of the policies in place to get students to the top are destructive. I want to make sure the health and well-being of students are taken care of.
**Which policies do you consider “destructive”? **
There’s something Millburn has that no other school has at the level we do: AP [Advanced Placement] qualifiers. If you want to take an AP class, you have to sit for a 90-minute standardized test on a topic you don’t know, or a reading you get on the spot. AP classes become competitive, and students find they can’t access classes they love in a subject they feel they’re ready to work at. And certain students hog the AP classes just because they can get in.
How do you think your fellow board members will treat you once you take office in January?
When I’ve spoken at meetings of the current board, some members have been receptive. But the Millburn Board of Education has a big problem with cronyism. Most votes are 9-0. The board members will even say they don’t disagree publicly. They haven’t been receptive to input from citizens. Sometimes, I didn’t even receive something as basic as eye contact when I spoke.
Some board members are trepidatious about my becoming a board member. I want to shake this up, bring transparency, change the conversation. They fear they won’t be able to continue with the agenda they’ve been pushing.