The promise of our democratic republic - one in which there is equal participation and representation - has yet to be realized in the United States. Instead, we have experienced 243 years of participation and representation of some and a process of exclusion of others.

Just half a century ago, we witnessed the Civil Rights movement, led predominantly by African-American communities in the South, secure suffrage. Yet barriers to voting persist through deliberate gerrymandering practices and discriminatory voter suppression laws. Ongoing disenfranchisement and dissuasion have challenged political motivation, participation, and power within communities of color in an era where voting rights are purportedly guaranteed. This results in a chronic civic engagement gap whereby individuals from low-income communities and communities of color participate in government at lower rates than their high income and white counterparts, who then have a disproportionate impact on public policy.


This civic engagement gap is mirrored by a civics education gap - young people, and particularly those from underserved communities, are not learning the knowledge and skills needed to participate.

To close the civics education gap, our school systems boldly step up and reconnect with its founding purpose: to prepare citizens for democratic participation. Rather than preparing an elite few, schools must work to prepare all young people for active citizenship.

Since the 2016 election, we’ve seen a spike in calls for increased and improved civic education. In a recent poll of the general population by the George W. Bush Institute and Penn Biden Center, nearly 90 percent of respondents favored a proposal to “ensure that schools make civics education a bigger part of the curriculum.” A survey conducted by Education Week found that more than half of school leaders, including principals and assistant principals, say that schools don’t focus enough on civics education and are spending too little time on it.

So how can we turn this interest and momentum into meaningful improvements to classroom curriculum? One answer is state laws - and specifically laws that have an explicit focus on closing the civics education gap.

A pioneering civics education law was passed last November in Massachusetts that sets a precedent for what such policies should look like. The law requires that all public schools teach American history and civics education and engage students at the middle and high school levels in a “student-led civics project.” These projects, which are what make this law particularly unique and effective, require that students take real action on issues in their community as they develop an understanding how government works and affects them. This might look like students in Boston taking on affordable housing by working with the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability to prevent landlords from evicting tenants without reason, or students in Lowell addressing gun violence by hosting a gun buyback event in partnership with their local police precinct and other community members. Critically, the law also establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund which will be used to create materials and professional development to support the law’s implementation in particular, in underserved communities.

As a leading example of comprehensive civics education legislation, here’s what we can learn from the Massachusetts law:

Civics content must be taught in a way that’s culturally relevant and resonates with the lived experiences of young people. Civic skills development, not just the transference of knowledge, must be required of every student.  Policies must mandate that civics classes go beyond memorizing facts to include hands-on real-world projects: students must actually do civics in order to learn civics. We do not expect nurses, engineers, or artists to excel by simply knowing a set of facts. Rather, they practice their craft just like we should expect citizens to do.

Funding is simultaneously fundamental for quality implementation of any civics requirement. To do this right, professional development, curriculum development, and other resources should be allocated with priority to the underserved districts who need it the most. When funding is not allocated to support the implementation of civics education policies, the policies do not get widely or equitably implemented.

In a moment in our country’s history when there’s little that we all agree on, we must capitalize on the unique consensus for more and better civics education.  As lawmakers engage in the 2019 legislative session, we urge them to invest in closing the civic engagement gap through policies that promote effective civics education for all students. So far this year, eight states have bills in front of the legislature to require civics education. Each of them - and other states -  should look to Massachusetts as a model.

Dana Harris is the Advocacy Director at Generation Citizen, a national action civics education nonprofit. Arielle Jennings is the organization’s Massachusetts Executive Director.