Published On: October 26, 2020
Home>Participatory Budgeting>Why Participatory Budgeting Is Central to FirstRoot’s Mission

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which a group of people provide input or decide directly on  how to invest a shared budget. First developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, PB has gained acceptance in more than 3,000 cities and schools around the world. Sponsored by local government officials, most of these PB projects serve cities.

Participatory Budgeting in Schools

When applied in educational settings, PB puts real money in students’ hands and supports them as they collaborate on investing this shared budget to improve their schools.

PB programs have the following phases:

Tilliden Participatory Budgeting Process
  • Design: Students design the process, defining overarching themes and determining who can participate
  • Ideation: Students create school improvement proposals
  • Refinement: Students critically assess the feasibility, desirability, and sustainability of proposals
  • Voting: Students vote on proposals
  • Funding: Students fund the proposals with real money
  • Implementation: Students see the results of their choices invested in their school

Why Participatory Budgeting is the foundation of our offerings

PB is pretty magical. In one powerful tool, our children learn the “Four Cs” of modern education: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, jumpstarting their path to financial literacy.

I don’t know of a more effective teaching tool.

How Participatory Budgeting teaches civics

The values on which democratic societies are based are crumbling. A root cause is that we’re no longer teaching civics — the art and practice of being a good citizen.

This is a structural problem, requiring a structural solution.

Within a school, PB motivates students to move from “me” thinking to “we” thinking: Not what is right for me, or what do I want, but what is right for the group, or what do we want? This perspective shift opens the door for empathy and solutions that improve the school for all stakeholders.

For example, our platform gives students the option to fund a participatory budgeting program in another school. Children in the originating school cannot tell the other children how to spend that money; they simply support them in creating their own program.

In addition to supporting other schools, children from different schools can collaborate to fund proposals that benefit the larger com munity. For example, students in one school may propose a new bus line that would improve safety and serve the community better. Students from multiple schools could support this proposal, substantially increasing its chance for success.

Together, these approaches create a breakthrough in civics.

Don’t be surprised: students make good choices

One concern adults share when considering PB is their worry about the choices the students will make. What causes this? My best guess is that adults are overly influenced by movies in which kids throw wild parties when their parents go on vacation, so they imagine that students will be irresponsible with their budgets.

The best way to address these concerns is to look at the choices students have made in past projects, as there is a rich history of students making excellent choices using PB. Here are a few examples from completed PB programs.


Sunnyvale Middle School
Sunnyvale, CA

Budget: $1,000

Students collaborated to purchase a 3D printer to prepare for the ‘future of work.”

San Jose

Overfelt High School
San José, CA

Budget: $50,000

One student program created a driving lesson scholarship for fellow classmates.

Phoenix Union

Phoenix Union
High School District

Budget: $4,000 -$7,000/school

Students in several schools chose to renovate their school cafeteria.

As a game designer, I delight in creating experiences that include surprises for the players. Secretly, that’s one of my favorite reasons why I love PB: the choices students make always seem to surprise the adults.

Long term benefits of Participatory Budgeting

PB creates many benefits:

  • It provides positive civic-engagement experiences, demonstrating democracy in action
  • It brings students closer to their community
  • It strengthens the relationship between students and administration
  • It illustrates the benefits of getting involved

By participating in PB, students will …

  • Collaborate with other students, leaders, and teachers
  • Develop financial literacy skills by funding projects with real money
  • Develop research skills in order to validate proposals
  • Develop design-thinking, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills
  • Increase awareness of community needs and develop a sense of social responsibility

Research has shown that:

  • PB in schools increases civic engagement, even if no formal curriculum drives the process.[1]
  • PB in schools and the community influences budget priorities.[2]
  • “Most scholars and participants of PB’s agree that one of their most important benefits is the deepening of the exercise of democracy.”[3]

Participatory Budgeting is what students need now

PB motivates students to learn and practice the “Four Cs” of the 21st Century curriculum: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration—all while teaching design thinking, civics, and launching their journey to increasing financial literacy. Students experience true agency and stewardship over their futures, learning through their own experiences how money really works.

[1] Cohen, M., D. Schugurensky and A. Wiek (2015). Citizenship Education through Participatory Budgeting: The Case of Bioscience High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Curriculum and Teaching, Volume 30, Number 2, pp. 5-26.

[2] New research on Participatory Budgeting Highlights – Community Priorities

[3] 72 Frequently Asked Questions about Participatory Budgeting, UN-HABIT.