Disparities in K-12 civic education threaten youth voter turnout

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A widening gap between young voters who have access to high-quality civic education and those who don’t is threatening young people’s ability to be active members in America’s democracy, experts say.

In the 2012 election, 56 percent of youth who had any college experience voted compared to only 29 percent of youth with no college experience. Young people between 18 and 29 make up 40 percent of the youth population.

Data provided by CIRCLE

The gap was similar in the 2008 election, when 62 percent of youth with any college experience voted, compared to only 36 percent of youth with no college experience.

“Studies point to young people who are in wealthy districts are more likely to be exposed to the evidence-based, high-quality civic practices,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

“Those practices teach students what it means to be engaged and give them an idea of how to make their voices heard,” she said.

Civic education begins in K-12 education, and the nation as a whole just isn’t doing a good enough job preparing young people to be engaged, Kiesa said.

Only eight states’ civic education standards require students learn about the ideological trends and foundations of the two major political parties, and only nine states require a state assessment on civics, according to CIRCLE data.


Chart by Ray Wilbur. Data from CIRCLE.

This is causing a large portion of young people to have to learn on their own, Kiesa said.

Michigan teaches a wide range of civic topics, including curriculum regarding parties’ ideologies and the responsibility of citizenship, according to CIRCLE data. This places the state ahead of most others around the country.

High school civic education is an important factor in analyzing whether a young person will go on to vote and whether they will be informed when they do so.

A study released in 2013 by CIRCLE found that of those who recalled studying voting during high school, 60.2 percent turned out to vote in 2012, as opposed to only 43 percent of those who recalled no civic education course.

In Michigan, 45 percent of people aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2012 election.
The more respondents’ teachers had taught them about voting, the more likely they were to vote in 2012, according to the data. This gap in civic education is disproportionately affecting poor and minority populations among young people.

A study conducted in California in 2008 found that high school students attending schools with higher socioeconomic status, those who are college-bound and white students get more opportunities to be engaged in civic duties than low-income students, those not heading to college and students of color.

One of the solutions is to increase teachers’ ability to teach meaningful, real time practices for civic engagement during high school, said Meira Levinson, professor of education at Harvard University.

But many teachers are afraid of the pushback that might come along with teaching students about modern elections.

In a national survey of more than 700 teachers conducted by CIRCLE after the 2012 election, more than one in four government or civics teachers in the U.S. said they would expect criticism from parents or other adults if they taught the election that had taken place that fall.

Only one-third said they would get strong support from their district.

“We have to create a climate of open discussion,” Kiesa said. “Teachers can’t just teach the history of politics, they have to teach about modern elections and how students can affect change through those elections.”

Rhode Island is the only state that comes close to explicitly requiring students to explore where their own beliefs fit within the ideological-partisan landscape, according to CIRCLE data.

College education is also a key factor contributing to whether or not a young person votes. With the disparity in access to college education between people in higher income pools and those in lower ones becomes larger, so does their respective voter turnout.

American children in the top quarter of the income distribution have an 80 percent chance of attending college while they are young adults, whereas young Americans whose families are in the bottom quarter of the income distribution have just a 17 percent chance of entering college, according to CIRCLE data.

This has a significant effect on whether or not those young people vote. Young adults who had attended college voted at almost twice the rate of their non-college-educated peers in 2012.

“This gap in engagement among college-educated and non college-educated young people has been consistently growing since the ‘70s,” Levinson said. “Young people are facing a serious issue here, but no one is really addressing it.”

It isn’t just schools, though. Young people who are surrounded by civically engaged adults and parents are more likely to vote, Kiesa said. And this tends to be in more wealthy areas, where kids are taught by their surroundings to be involved in civic issues.

“If we aren’t teaching our kids at home, they probably aren’t learning it at school,” she said. “Teachers, parents and adults all have to be involved in urging civic engagement.”

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