Preparation for Civic Participation

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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Center for Educational Equity

Preparation for Civic Participation:
Research, Legal Analysis, and Advocacy

The 2016 presidential election campaign underscored some very troubling trends in the present state of our democracy: the extreme polarization of the electorate; the dismissal of people with opposing views; and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information. Other disturbing trends have been present for decades: the proportion of eligible voters who actually vote is substantially lower than in most other developed countries; the number of residents who actively participate in local community activities has dramatically declined; Americans are increasingly neglecting basic civic responsibilities like jury service; and major segments of the population continue to be disenfranchised from and marginalized in decision-making processes that affect their lives and the direction of the nation as a whole.

These trends raise critical questions about how well our nation’s schools have been fulfilling their historical mission to prepare young people to be good citizens, capable of safeguarding our democracy and stewarding our nation toward a greater realization of its democratic values—and whether and how our schools can do better.  

Preparation for civic participation has historically been one of the fundamental purposes of public education in the United States. In New York and most other states, civic preparation is also a core part of students’ right to education under state constitutions.

The New York Court of Appeals held in CFE v. State of New York that the purpose of public education is to provide students a meaningful opportunity to obtain the skills they need to “function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” The U.S. Supreme Court and dozens of other state courts have agreed that preparing students to be capable civic participants is a primary purpose of public education. Despite these clear statements, and holdings, however, the courts have not yet taken steps to ensure that all schools can and do, in fact, provide the kind of education that is essential to sustain our democracy.

To explore and address these questions, which are vitally important for educational excellence and equity, the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University has initiated a major educational-rights-centered project on preparation for civic participation.

Over the next two years, CEE intends to implement a dynamic interrelated program of research, policy development, public engagement, advocacy, and legal action. Ultimately, we seek to ensure that all students receive a meaningful opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, experiences, and values, including the belief in their ability to effect change, that they need to be capable civic participants—and that all schools, particularly schools attended predominately by students in poverty and students of color, are equipped to provide resources, services, and supports to make this happen.

TC Today-Civic Preparation

Preparation for Civic Participation Project Plan