Political pupils: Civics gets renewed attention in schools

In this Jan, 29, 2016 photo provided by Connecticut Public Affairs Network, Elena Tipton, of East Hartford, Conn., poses in the former governor's office at Connecticut's Old State House in Hartford, Conn. Tipton, 11, was elected as Connecticut's kid governor in 2015. Seven candidates have been campaigning for the votes of their fellow fifth-graders across Connecticut to succeed Tipton in the November 2016 election. The program's goal is to spark deeper interest for all students in government and civics, a subject that receives less attention in American schools today compared with earlier decades. (Connecticut Public Affairs Network via AP)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The incumbent governor ran on a kindness platform and is just finishing up a year of public appearances and speeches. The candidates vying to succeed her are focusing their campaigns on issues including homelessness, recycling and bullying prevention.

Welcome to politics, elementary-school style.

Seven candidates are running to be the fifth-grade “kid governor” of Connecticut in an election that seeks to spark deeper interest for all students in government and civics, subjects getting less attention in American schools today than in earlier decades.

Similar efforts have sprouted as education-focused nonprofits and schools aim to prepare better-engaged citizens. Advocates say a need for more civic instruction has been apparent for years but was highlighted by the low voter turnout and acrid tone in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“Effective civics learning promotes civil discourse. Effective civics learning helps students develop the ability to discuss controversial issues respectfully. That seemed to be in very short supply in the election we’ve just gone through,” said Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. “Basic civics knowledge is wanting throughout our country.”

After years of decline, many efforts are underway to restore the role advocates say schools were intended to play in teaching students their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

The decline in schools began in the 1950s and accelerated in the 2000s as schools emphasized courses with more bearing on testing under No Child Left Behind, McConnell said. Where high schools once taught three civics courses, he said, it is generally down to one.

— Illinois, which had been among less than a dozen states without a civics requirement, required at least a semester of instruction for students to graduate beginning this year.

— Nonprofit groups such as Generation Citizen and Discovering Justice have mobilized volunteers to help high school teachers run action-oriented civics projects and teach the importance of good citizenship.

— States including California, Connecticut and New York have updated their social studies frameworks to put more emphasis on civics and participatory skills.

In Connecticut, 4,400 fifth-graders from 45 cities and towns voted to choose the kid governor. The program, which also includes in-class lessons about government and engaging with community issues, was launched last year by the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, with sponsorship by the state Department of Education.

The winner serves a one-year term. Responsibilities include developing a plan to deliver on campaign promises, keeping up a blog highlighting other students’ efforts to make a difference, and making public appearances and speeches.

The current kid governor, Elena Tipton, 11, of East Hartford, was elected last year on a kindness platform. She said she originally planned a campaign focused on bullying prevention, but said that would be giving bullies the attention that they want.

“The best part about it is that I get to go around and meet all these different people and learn what they do to be kind,” Elena said.

Research has shown that civics education, including discussions of current events, increases the likelihood young people will vote, said Peter Levine, an associate dean at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. There also is evidence, he said, that when children are engaged, their parents are more likely to vote.

The framework adopted last year in Connecticut urges schools to teach civics throughout the curriculum, and not just in high school. A new initiative with the secretary of the state’s office will recognize schools that taught the 2016 elections in innovative ways.

Brian Cofrancesco, who runs the kid governor program, said it helps children understand the democratic process and the value of their own voice.

“Kids are realizing,” he said, “every vote really does matter.”

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