National Press Club

Now's the time to teach civics to youth, urges education group at Newsmaker

October 9, 2013 | By Marie Wood |

There is no better time than the present to improve civic education in schools and youth organizations, declared the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) in a report released at a National Press Club Newsmaker Oct. 9.

The current political dysfunction in the United States should not be a barrier to action on civic education, members of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, the national bipartisan commission that authored report, told the Newsmaker. Rather, they stressed, the dysfunction provides an opportunity to teach a new generation of Americans to be civil, responsible citizens.

Not only is the time right for such instruction, but there is an urgency for it, said Peter Levine, CIRCLE’s director. The growing gap in political engagement between advantaged and disadvantaged populations, he said, requires action.

“If we don't address this while people are still young, we are doomed to another century of inequality and lack of political engagement,” he said.

In preparing the report, the commission collected data from more than 6,000 young adults and 720 high school civics or government teachers and stakeholders. It also analyzed states' voting and education laws.

In one key finding, the report concluded that state requirements related to voting and civic education – among them course requirements, testing and service – seem inadequate, reported Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, deputy director of CIRCLE.

Another distressing finding, said the commission members, is the low level of “informed” engagement by American youth. According to the report, they said, fewer than half of young Americans vote, and only 10 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 met a standard of “informed engagement” in the 2012 presidential election; only 49% of young people between 18 and 29 voted.

Recommendations in the report focus on innovation and collaboration, summarized Levine. Emphasizing innovation, he cited the need for new policy initiatives, higher standards for civic education, and a greater focus on current events, deliberation and civic skills. He urged policies that allow teachers to discuss current events in their classrooms and to receive training in teaching civic engagement.

As one innovation, the report recommended lowering the voting age to 17 in municipal and some state elections so that students can be encouraged to vote while they are taking a required civics class. Levine suggested another example: giving kids rigorously defined, portable marks of excellence in civics -- for example, badges that can be awarded by schools or groups like Boy Scouts.

Another panelist, Robert Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters, said “We are letting young people down by creating too many obstacles for them. Tools of voter suppression like voter ID laws and restricting access to the ballot hurt our nation's most vulnerable citizens the most.” Such actions, he said, hurt democracy.