This is a guest post by Judge Marjorie Rendell, First Lady of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
On leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman what kind of government they had given the country. He replied: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” A recently released study tells us how well we are “keeping it” in PA.
In December, the National Constitution Center and the National Conference on Citizenship released the Pennsylvania Civic Health Index. The report (download the PDF here) celebrates certain areas where our state is healthy, but and makes clear that there are other areas where there is much room for improvement.
One of the report’s key findings was that Pennsylvanians have fallen behind in voter registration and turnout:
- Our 70% voter registration puts us 35th among all states in voter registration.
- Our 62.40% voter turnout makes us 39th in that category.
- Pennsylvania also ranks below the national average in discussing politics with family and friends. Only 34.7% of our residents talk about political issues with their loved ones compared to 39.3% nationally. By this measure, Pennsylvania ranks 45th out of the 50 states.
- We are 11th in the nation in watching Television or Internet news and 17th in attending rallies marches or protests.
Let there be no doubt: the way to citizen participation in government is through civics education. It has been my mission as First Lady of Pennsylvania to restore Civics Education to the schools of Pennsylvania. It is crucial for the future health of our democracy that all young people have the knowledge, skills and attitudes of competent and responsible citizens, and the realization that democracy not only exists in their hearts and minds, but can not succeed without their informed participation.
The principles that shape our democracy must be taught and we should begin with the youngest of children. I am convinced that if we instill in our youth respect for, and knowledge of, our founding principles we will not have to worry about the civic health of our Commonwealth. Cultivation of a sense of civic responsibility should begin in early childhood, when children are learning – at home, in their neighborhoods, and in school – the values that will shape their future conduct and relationships. At the stage when children are learning the importance of individual responsibility, cooperation, respect for others, and the importance of being part of a team, children can also be encouraged to self-identify as citizens.
For example, the Allentown School District has adopted a K-12 civics curriculum that had been developed around basic values and desired behaviors. This program, titled the “School Violence Prevention Demonstration Program” (SVPDP), is based on four core concepts: authority, responsibility, justice, and privacy. The SVPDP program is designed to permeate the school environment and improve students’ civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
It provides teacher participants with training opportunities that support the curriculum. The Allentown School District is a diverse district of 18,500 students and the population comes from 43 countries and speaks 26 different languages. The implementation of the program was challenging, but its success has surpassed all expectations. Research shows academic growth, including reading, writing and math skills. In addition, a research study conducted in 2006 by the Allentown School District revealed that teachers perceived that the curriculum fostered problem-solving skills, and the focus on persuasive writing enhanced the students’ ability to “evaluate options, choose an option and support that option with facts.”
I applaud the National Constitution Center and the National Conference on Citizenship for the work they have done on this report. As we begin a New Year, I ask that we reflect on what each of us can do to improve our civic health and the civic health of the next generation, thereby insuring that the youth of Pennsylvania have the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be effective citizens. We cannot leave our children a legacy of good government if we do not give them the skills necessary in order to “keep it”.