Your future called. It wants a better civics education.

A new national initiative is looking at demographic shifts and asking the question: Should schools go back to teaching good old fashioned civics again?
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A new national initiative is looking at demographic shifts and asking the question: Should schools go back to teaching good old fashioned civics again?

University of Washington professor Lance Bennett sees the challenge for civics education this way: You have to keep a realistic focus on "dutiful citizen" initiatives, while appealing to the changing civic concerns of younger "actualized citizens," who may view things through a personal lens. 

So, as a baby boomer who has shouldered responsibilities for the generations above and below me, I was intrigued by the premise of the Generations Initiative, a five-year effort to develop a multi-generational response to the demographic shifts underway in the U.S. The Initiative, led by Director Hilary Pennington, was presented to a multi-age, diverse group of about 60 Seattle-area community and civic leaders at a conference in early May. Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), shared some national demographic trends, as well as Seattle-specific data.

Nationally, said Dr. Pastor:

  • By 2050, over 100 million Americans will be over age 65.
  • By 2040, the majority of Americans will be people of color.
  • The net worth of youth has decreased by 53 percent since 1984, yet the “dependency ratio is rising. Workers will need to work more to support older and younger family members."

At the local level:

  • The Seattle area is more diverse than the rest of the U.S. We are retaining our African American population. At the same time, both our Asian and Latino populations are growing. This makes us unique and puts a premium on coalition politics.
  • The states with greater youth/race disparities are the states that spend less on education.
  • Seattle-area “imports” are better educated than “home-grown” residents, and are doing better economically. Education is crucial for home-grown residents to be able to take advantage of economic opportunities here.

Changing demographics have strained economic and social welfare programs, such as Medicare, and placed renewed emphasis on providing equal access to education opportunities. For individuals and families, these shifting demographics will require significant strategic planning for an unfamiliar future. This is a game-changer in terms of understanding the future of representational governance, and it begs the question: What do we want our national priorities to be?

When I came of voting age, my sometimes-apathetic peers and I were often overshadowed by the anti-war and civil rights activists who preceded us. Still, we felt compelled to vote.

Yet a spring 2013 Harvard survey of voters under 30 found that many are disillusioned with government and major institutions (the military is an exception). A rise in vitriolic partisan politics and the struggling economy are partly to blame. 

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Some are blaming this voting apathy on the lack of quality civics education in our schools.

Like South Lake High School teacher Webster Hutchins. Hutchins, who was recently named Civic Educator of the Year by the Washington State Legislature, has developed a plan to foster actualized citizenship in Seattle schools. He calls it his “Civics for All” initiative and he is a tireless promoter.

Hutchins wrote the initiative after taking a group of Franklin High School juniors to Olympia to participate in the 2011 legislative session. When they returned, his students testified before the Seattle School Board where they asked that all Seattle students be given the same political experiences and opportunities.

Hutchins wants civics to be a recurring theme in all K-12 social studies classes and for civics lessons to be woven into other classroom lesson plans, when appropriate. As an example, he cites a math teacher who had students practice their skills by determining income tax rates.

He also calls for all schools to hold annual mock elections, for high schools to play a leadership role in registering eligible seniors to vote and for increased media literacy instruction, with a focus on electoral politics and current events.

A revitalized emphasis on civics fits within the framework of the Common Core standards (which will be fully implemented in Washington State in 2014-15), says Hutchins, because the new standards emphasize interpretation of non-fiction texts and critical thinking. He says his plan is student-centric, teacher-friendly and “turnkey” for administrators.

Wary of accusations that he is trying to mandate curriculum, Hutchins stresses that his plan merely provides a framework to foster civic literacy and get kids thinking about the role of government, advocacy and dissent, the responsibilities of citizens and how citizens can work together for the common good.

“All of these questions are designed to ask a kid’s opinion,” Hutchins says. “By giving kids a voice, you keep them in school.”

Last fall, Lynnwood High School government teacher Sharon Kriskovich was ordered to remove bi-partisan campaign posters from her classroom because of a complaint from the Washington Education Association. The incident tqught her students a real-world civics lesson: Thanks to civic activism and media coverage, the signs were restored to the classroom.

Recent controversies like this within Seattle Schools, including MAP testing, racially disproportionate discipline and the debate over the Center School’s Race and Social Justice curriculum, Hutchins says, highlight the need for a “civic culture of learning.” Yet his boundless enthusiasm for promoting civics may also be a handicap.

Hutchins can’t contain his excitement when he imagines Seattle making history by holding the nation’s largest district-wide, school mock election. In the same breath, he acknowledges that it’s challenging to champion a radical idea yet keep it palatable enough for leaders to feel comfortable supporting it.

The project's list of political supporters is long: City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, School Board directors Kay Smith Blum, Sharon Peaslee and Marty McClaren and a host of legislators and other public officials have signed on. Yet, Civics for All has so far received a non-committal response from Seattle School District leaders. Hutchins says the Seattle Education Association will survey its members to determine their support for the initiative this fall.

At the end of the Generations Initiative presentation, participants were asked what we could do to advance this conversation and affect policy changes. What's holding Seattle back?

In the restroom, Jesse Colin Young’s “Get Together” was playing. The song was probably unfamiliar to the millennials in the other stalls, but it reminded me of the clarion call to action of my youth.

In Seattle, people are talking, but what happens next?

On Tuesday, July 16 City Club and the Our School Coalition will present an interactive mayoral debate, in which citizens set the agenda and provide real-time feedback to candidates.

On Thursday, July 18, City Club, in partnership with the Center for Courage and Renewal, will present Civil Discourse:  Moving to the Heart of the Matter.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."