Time to Double Down on Civic Learning

Government paralysis cripples our country. Congress and the president can't pass a budget, and the federal government shuts down. Springfield fails to push pension reform, and a fiscal crisis deepens in Illinois. Steep pension payments stifle local governments, squeezing social services and school budgets.

As policymakers at every level grasp desperately for stop-gap solutions, the long-term answer lies in preparing young people for informed, effective engagement in our democracy. We remain a government for and by the people, and preparing students for civic life is a critical charge of our schools.

Illinois students must graduate high school ready to assume the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. This requires having knowledge of our governmental institutions and a firm understanding of how they work (or don't work) -- but also much more. Effective civic engagement demands an action-orientation, the ability to deliberate and develop consensus on controversial public issues, and collaboration with community members to address common concerns.

Many citizens today lack these basic skills (our political leaders included). This problem is particularly apparent among young people in Illinois. Illinois Millennials (ages 18 to 29), when compared with their national peers, rank 47th in voting regularly in local elections. They also rank in the bottom fifth of states in exchanging favors with neighbors or working with them to resolve community problems.

Thankfully, Illinois boasts outstanding examples of schools, educators, and organizations dedicated to reversing these trends, many of them highlighted in the Illinois Civic Blueprint that was released today by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, in partnership with the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition. These schools and organizations have leaders that value civic learning, embrace challenging curricula where civics is central, have deep commitments to staff development, maintain positive school climates, and leverage resources of surrounding communities, all in an effort to educate their students to be lifelong active and engaged citizens.

The Civic Blueprint illuminates a path forward for schools in search of their civic mission. It provides explanations of proven civic learning practices, examples of Illinois high schools, teachers, students, and community partners using them, and resources that support schools and communities in promoting youth civic engagement.

At a time when our government institutions are seemingly broken and the populace provides little more than a collective sigh, we must double down on school-based civic learning. The very fate of our democracy depends upon the next generation reversing the tides of apathy, demanding more from our public servants, and assuming the reigns of leadership, poised for informed deliberation and collaborative governance.