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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Educating citizens

Public schools are supposed to developed engaged, informed citizens — not just prep kids for college and careers, notes Fordham fellow Robert Pondiscio on The 74.

Democracy Prep students conduct voter registration drives.

“We remain sentimentally attached to a gauzy myth of the American common school ideal and its presumed role in citizen-making, even without evidence of its effectiveness,” he writes.

Now there is some evidence: A new Mathematica report finds that Democracy Prep charter schools increase students’ voter registration rate by 16 percentage points and voting by 12 percentage points, he writes. “As a summary from the American Enterprise Institute notes, “the raw numbers were even stronger, a 24-point increase in both, which suggest Democracy Prep doubled its students’ likelihood to register and vote.”

Pondiscio, who’s taught civics at Democracy Prep schools, isn’t surprised.

. . . Democracy Prep students participate in annual voter registration campaigns and other forms of direct civic engagement. Nearly every fall, students as young as kindergartners can be seen on the streets of Harlem registering voters; they are unmistakable in their distinctive bright yellow T-shirts with the slogan “I can’t vote, but you can!” High school seniors work all year on capstone “Change the World” projects wherein they research a social problem of interest to them and then plan and execute some manner of public response — a fundraising drive, a protest, an awareness campaign, etc. Students routinely offer testimony to representatives at all levels of government. Food drives, volunteerism, and “service learning” are encouraged. Passing the U.S. Citizenship Test is a graduation requirement. The class that I taught was a seminar in civics and citizenship for graduating seniors, in which we would wrestle with constitutional issues at work in students’ lives, from campus speech codes to “broken windows” policing.

Democracy Prep’s mission statement is “to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.”

When Pondiscio researched mission statements adopted by the nation’s 100 largest school districts, he found more than half did not mention civics or citizenship.

Civic engagement is linked to education, he concludes. To be educated is to be  enfranchised.

In the wake of the Parkland horror, activists have encouraged young people to register and vote for pro-gun-control candidates. More young voters say they’ll turn out for the mid-terms: 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds plan to vote in November, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics survey. In the last midterm elections in 2014, 23 percent said they planned to vote and 20 percent actually did.

We’ll see if the youth vote is up significantly — and if young voters have an impact on any races.

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