Charter schools and citizenship

Charter students should be nation builders, says Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools. The seven-school charter network is featured in the first policy brief in American Enterprise Institute’s new series of charter schools and civics education.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”

. . . Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV (get out the vote)  campaign.”

Democracy Prep teaches “what it means to be a citizen by doing—mobilizing voters, lobbying state legislators, and teaching their own family members about the importance of voting rights. Meanwhile, classroom lessons about history, government, rights, and responsibilities provide students with the foundation and context necessary to understand why civic engagement is so important.”

Of course, preparing students to be good citizens can take many forms. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network based in Michigan, stresses character education. I wrote the Counting on Character brief for AEI.

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue.

Like other charter schools, NHA promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

The AEI series will look at a variety of ways to teach civics and citizenship.