Editorials

Civics education is essential to democracy

Sierra Campbell, 17, looks over a ballot as the Sacramento county elections board staged a mock presidential election at Grant High to stimulate interest among high school students in the election process in October 2012.
Sierra Campbell, 17, looks over a ballot as the Sacramento county elections board staged a mock presidential election at Grant High to stimulate interest among high school students in the election process in October 2012. Sacramento Bee file

After every election comes the inevitable hand-wringing. Voting experts and other people who care about preserving our democracy shake their heads over turnout numbers among young people and wonder what this world is coming to.

Californians between 18 and 34 aren’t short on opinions when it comes to, say, “American Idol.” But an overwhelming majority of them decline to cast a vote for governor or mayor, let alone the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District board of directors.

Many smart people have spent many hours pondering why and have come to a conclusion: If young people lack a sense of civic responsibility, perhaps no one taught them to have one.

Like so many other once-important subjects in public K-12 classrooms – art, music, home economics, penmanship – civics education is being de-emphasized, to our collective detriment.

Policymakers must have reasoned that kids could learn about how laws are made after they grasp algebra, French, U.S. history. The result of this educational neglect has come home to roost in dismal election turnouts, not just among young people, but for all Californians. The state ranks 38th out of 50 in civic engagement.

Yes, it could be worse, but let’s not wait to get to No. 50 to act. Failing to prepare the next generation to be civically engaged dooms it to having their lives determined by an increasingly small minority and threatens democracy. We must do better.

Opinion about the value of civic learning, however, has started to turn around. In coming months, groups of prominent people in Sacramento, Butte, Fresno and three other California counties will be asking their school districts to recommit to teaching civics. And not just in the senior year of high school or in AP classes, either – but for all students starting as early as elementary school.

This effort, called Power of Democracy, sprang out of the deliberations of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The task force, co-chaired by Sacramento County Office of Education Superintendent David Gordon and Judith McConnell, administrative presiding justice for the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, developed a plan for rebuilding civics in state schools.

Rather than force these recommendations on districts dealing with big educational policy changes as part of Common Core and Local Control Funding, the task force decided to go the route of gentle persuasion. To that end, groups of civic leaders are being formed to reach out to individual boards of education and ask them to adopt a resolution embracing civics education.

In Sacramento, that effort is being led by former Metro Chamber President Roger Niello, Justice Ronald Robie and retired superintendent of San Juan Unified schools General Davie Jr.

It’s an important undertaking. But school districts and teachers don’t need to wait for this group to show up to start incorporating civics into their classrooms. For the sake of their students, they shouldn’t wait.

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