Like many fellow Americans, I am following the 2016 US Presidential campaign national conventions and conversations to determine the implications for our nation. I am frequently reminded of a civic education initiative we developed at the Education Commission of the States in 2000. We released a report titled, “Every Student A Citizen”. It encouraged increased civic education in schools through curriculum, effective practices, school climate and policy support.
Here’s what we said then about the state of our country:
“… dis-ease gnaws at the collective soul. Something feels wrong. A big part of that ‘something’ is a deepening sense of civic disconnection. Many Americans are disengaging from fragmenting social structures that no longer address their real needs. Many feel overlooked and betrayed by governments that seem beyond the reach of ordinary citizens or captive to special interests. At the same time, more and more Americans seem to be disengaging from even the most fundamental acts of citizenship, such as voting and keeping informed about public issues. These disconnects emerge in sharper, more painful relief among the nation’s youth.”
My sense, 16 years later, is that there continues to be a civic disconnection for many youth. According to CIRCLE in 2012, 45% of young people, ages 18-29, voted down from 51% in 2008 and in 2014 19.9% of youth cast ballots. However, given the popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, many young voters found political strategies that are relevant to them. However, some of these same youth now feel great disappointment that he is not the Democratic nominee and they are left to determine who is their best candidate or to decide not to vote in 2016.
If we want our youth to be more connected to our civic systems and political processes, we need to move from a single focus on presidential campaigns and ensure we inform and engage them in Congressional, state and local elections. I understand the popularity and ease of focusing on presidential candidates as our newscasts, newspapers, podcasts and social media platforms are well populated with the presidential campaign updates not to mention the various TV/Radio and print advertisements. However, we need to balance these campaigns with those that are directly relevant to our lives, namely state and local elections.
This year, there are 12 governor races and in every state congressional and state legislature races. In addition, state elections include public offices at the state and local levels (e.g., state superintendent, state auditor, county board member, mayor, council members, etc.). These state and municipal leaders make decisions that directly impact the lives of citizens as they determine local funding, public works programs, education priorities, zoning, environmental policies, and make many other decisions impacting our daily lives.
Yes, 2016 is an important presidential election, but let’s not lose sight of the importance of state and local races that impact us. Correspondingly in our schools, I encourage us to engage our students in lessons and activities focused on state and local campaigns as they develop their civic knowledge, skills, and habits.