To harness the political power of young voters, teach civics | Opinion

It’s election season now, but civic education should be a year-round priority

A voting sign in Philadelphia

A voting sign in Philadelphia. (Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler)

By Lauren Cristella

Amid the elections across the state this spring – dozens of candidates vying for seats on city councils and school boards, a highly competitive mayoral race in Philadelphia, a vacant seat on the state Supreme Court and many others – the Pennsylvanians with the most at stake in our May primary are chronically underserved by the candidates.

Maybe because most of them aren’t yet old enough to vote. But they are old enough to have an impact – and they must.

Building their electoral power begins with a renewed investment in civic education by their schools.

I serve as interim president and COO of Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan nonprofit with bipartisan support, which has promoted fair elections and integrity in government for more than a century. We believe elections should be more free, fair, safe and secure, and we want every eligible voter to vote, to be informed when they vote, and to vote with confidence.

Starting with our youngest voters.

It’s election season now, but civic education should be a year-round priority. It’s about more than just encouraging people to vote. It’s about teaching how government works, helping students trace the line from pressing a button in the voting booth to how clean the streets are in their neighborhood and how safe their schools are. When students understand those links, and the power they have to control their environment, the motivation to vote takes care of itself.

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Amid other pressing educational matters, civic education has gotten lost. Eleven states have no civics course requirements—including New Jersey and Delaware. A 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education, from Brookings, found that even as reading and math scores have improved – due in part to a heightened focus on STEAM education – civics knowledge has lagged.

The results are evident across our commonwealth, where courts just issued a historic ruling that found our school funding formula to be unconstitutionally unequal. That inequality didn’t just happen. It’s the result of decades of disinvestment and choices made by people in power, people unaccountable to students who had yet to learn about the impact they can have if they are organized and engaged.

It’s evident in districts like Central Bucks, in suburban Philadelphia, where students and educators are protesting discriminatory policies. Even as the school board’s actions are the result of one-sided civic engagement – in which those seeking to change the district’s rules ran for office and got elected – those who are demonstrating are also getting a civics education of their own.

For those still standing on the sidelines: It’s not too late to get involved, and get informed.

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Democracy works better when we earn and hold trust: in local election officials, in the integrity of our systems, and in each other. Though we’ve seen that trust erode in recent years, the best way to build trust is to get involved and become a part of the democratic process, and to work toward a government that is as transparent and accountable as possible.

Resources are out there. The PA Civics Coalition has lesson plans and tools to prepare students for active citizenship in their communities. PA Youth Vote, which the Committee of Seventy has worked with to develop a full elections and voting curriculum, is a nonpartisan collaboration of young people, educators, and organizations working to elevate youth voices, improve public school civics education, and empower youth as civic actors.

At the local level, Vote That Jawn brings 18-year-olds and other first-time voters to the polls – beginning a process toward a life of active citizenship – to advocate for youth safety, agency, and inclusion. And the Committee of Seventy just launched its first Teacher Advisory Council, a group of Pennsylvania high school teachers who will help develop resources and conduct outreach to educators across the commonwealth. This is in addition to mock elections that C70 facilitated for 1,200 students across 15 schools last year, with a goal of reaching more students this year.

The Committee of Seventy believes that active citizenship is the only path toward a vibrant and open democracy. The first step is learning what power each of us has, and how that power is magnified when we work together. Approaching problems through a bipartisan framework will lead to outcomes that improve our city, our state and our country – particularly for those who will be here the longest.

Lauren Cristella is interim president and COO of the Committee of Seventy.  She writes from Philadelphia.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.