Opinion: Creating engaged Georgia citizens starts at school

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass is director of school reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think tank. In this guest column, Chieppo and Gass write that civics education in Georgia’s public schools needs serious improvement.

By Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass

Georgians are least likely among residents of all 50 states to regularly consume information about political or local issues. And the Peach State only ranks 33rd in voter registration, according to the 2023 Georgia Civic Health Index.

This apparent lack of enthusiasm for civic engagement is particularly stark among younger generations. Less than a third of Georgia’s Gen Z vote in local elections. Less than half voted in the most recent presidential election. And only 1.3% are likely to contact a public official.

Georgia’s youths aren’t an exception. Nationally, less than half of 18-to-24-year-olds plan to vote in the next general election.

Our K-12 schools are largely to blame for this phenomenon. In recent decades, U.S. history and civics education have suffered as the focus in K-12 schools has shifted to math and science. The move away from history and civics has bred ignorance of how our government works while widening societal divides. Most young Americans feel like high school didn’t adequately prepare them to be voters, according to a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School.

The time is long overdue to reinvigorate the study of comprehensive, balanced U.S. history that can help Americans of all backgrounds understand the values and principles that unite us.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass is director of school reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think tank. (Courtesy of Pioneer Institute)

Credit: Pioneer Institute

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Credit: Pioneer Institute

When the Pioneer Institute and the National Association of Scholars studied 15 leading high school civics programs, they found too many that push academic quality and facts aside in favor of trendy political theories that focus on race, identity, and the nation’s shortcomings. Such curricula take a narrow view of U.S. history, using selected facts to develop an overarching thesis that offers an ultra-politicized and distorted view of the people and ideas that built our nation.

We should not ignore the shortcomings of our founders or Americans today. But it does K-12 students a grave disservice to simply ignore the genius of the men and women of America’s founding generation.

There are no quick or easy answers to reversing declines in test scores or bolstering informed participation in local, state and federal government. But any answer must begin with a good-faith effort to steep students in our nation’s founding. That means nonpartisan instruction in how our government was established, the structure and functions of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and an appreciation for a system of federalism that has endured for nearly 250 years.

In 2022, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill to establish the Georgia Commission on Civics Education to promote the study of civics in schools. It’s a great start — but there’s much more to be done.

The Pioneer Institute’s new book, “Restoring the City on a Hill: U.S. History & Civics in America’s Schools,” focuses on how states can establish and revamp curricula that offer greater academic quality and balance. The goal is to give students an appreciation of those 18th- and 19th-century individuals — of all genders, races, and social backgrounds — who made possible a new birth of freedom.

States seeking to strengthen their history and civics curriculum should focus on academic content and design an open, inclusive process that uses surveys, regional meetings, and outreach to both parents and classroom teachers. States should consider making passage of the U.S. citizenship test a requirement for graduation from a public high school, admission to a public college, or eligibility for a Pell Grant or other public funds for education.

Civics content should be grounded in primary source documents such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Federalist Papers, with teachers providing age-appropriate guidance.

Parents should hold public school districts accountable for the quality of the history and civics curriculum and challenge local school officials when those materials become partisan or politicized.

Simply put, students need to know much more than they do about both the good that America has achieved and the ways in which the nation has sometimes fallen short of its democratic ideals. Examining the flaws without understanding the intent and virtues of the founders leads to division and acrimony where unity and understanding should flourish.

Americans have always enjoyed arguing politics and partisanship, and our young people will surely have their turn at that. Though basic civic knowledge and democratic vocabulary should unite us all, nobody should hide from the darker chapters of our nation’s past.

We should first ensure that our youths grasp the foundations of the founders’ vision, whose Enlightenment principles guided the establishment of our constitutional republic, which remains unlike any the world has ever seen. Georgia’s schoolchildren deserve nothing less.