We are worried about the future of American democracy.
Deep fissures in our civic community along with the spread of misinformation undermine our commitment and capacity for public engagement and action. This weakening of our ability to solve problems democratically coincides with crises that demand our collective attention.
We are struggling to respond to a global pandemic, the urgent need to address racial injustice and the challenges of climate change which are bringing unprecedented wildfires to the West Coast. Needless to say, many underlying challenges we face as a society will persist long after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed.
Even as we wait for a new administration to bring some modest changes to our national politics, it is increasingly clear that we need a broader renewal of democracy. Our public schools can and should play a critical role. We should be preparing youth to engage thoughtfully and powerfully with societal issues.
Advancing this agenda across California’s public schools demands that we not take democracy for granted. Unfortunately, a study we recently published finds few districts in the state currently focus on and invest in the democratic purpose of public education.
Five million of California’s 6 million students attend school districts that do not directly address civic goals in their mission statements. Seven in eight districts in the state do not mention “civics,” “democracy” or “citizenship” in their Local Control Accountability Plans. These plans detail a district’s priorities and allocate funds to pursue those goals. And only 29% of California school districts have staff dedicated to supporting social studies and civics — less than half the number provided for other major subjects.
California needs to reclaim the democratic purpose of public schools. It can. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other leaders should quickly bring together policy, education and community leaders to develop a state master plan for democratic education.
The Legislature and the State Board of Education can work together to ensure that districts address democratic education in their Local Control Accountability Plans.
The California Department of Education can work with county offices of education to provide supports to schools and districts throughout the state. Those advancing curricular reforms can embed attention to civic issues in subjects as diverse as science, art and ethnic studies.
There are reasons to be hopeful that, by taking these kinds of steps, California’s public schools can promote education for democracy. In September, the State School Board formally adopted a new State Seal for Civic Engagement that students can earn on their high school diploma. This new policy potentially can galvanize attention and support for high-quality civic learning across the state. At the same time, progress will require sustained attention and supports for teachers.
Many educators are understandably hesitant to address controversial civic and political issues in an era of increased political polarization and misinformation. They need our support. Districts can provide professional development on how to structure respectful classroom discussions grounded in evidence and analysis.
Schools can engage students in service learning opportunities where they learn about and address community problems, thereby building social trust and understanding. Elected officials and civic leaders also can play a critically important role by talking about the role of our public schools in enhancing democracy.
If we ignore our problems, they will not go away. We must reclaim the democratic purposes of education so that students learn to investigate pressing issues, seek out trustworthy information, engage productively across differences, and take action so that both our communities and our state can reach their full potential. The current moment has created both an opportunity and an obligation to act.
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Joseph Kahne is the Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Professor for Education Policy and the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside. Erica Hodgin is the co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside. John Rogers is a professor of education and the director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.