By Joshua Benton
RICHARDSON – There’s no better excuse for a party at Rose Harp’s house than a presidential debate.
For each election of her 30-year career as a government teacher – the last 25 of them at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson – Mrs. Harp has invited her students to her home for a debate-watching pizza party.
“We’d have so many cars, we’d have parking problems,” she recalled.
But over the last few campaigns, Mrs. Harp said, she has found it harder to get students excited about politics. The Young Politicians club she sponsored has gone dormant. She has found fewer students paying attention to the candidates. And now she even has trouble getting them excited about a pizza party.
“Free food is usually a big draw for kids,” she said. “You see how far it’s dropped if you can’t get teenagers excited about free pizza.”
With this year’s election only weeks away and turnout among young voters continuing to tumble, some are looking toward the educational system for a solution.
“These kids’ parents are not really role models themselves as far as voting goes,” said Carolie Mullan, president of the Texas League of Women Voters. “The schools have to play a role.”
Eighteen-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1971, with the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. The next year, amid raging debate over the Vietnam War, young people showed up at the polls in force, with 43.4 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds casting ballots.
But by the 1996 presidential election, only 28.2 percent voted, compared with 49 percent of all eligible voters. Only 12.1 percent of young voters turned out for the 1998 midterm election.
The trend probably won’t reverse soon, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group that focuses on citizen engagement in politics.
“I expect that the turnout this year will be even lower than in 1996,” he said.
Solving the problem has proved more difficult than identifying it.
“It’s very unclear what, exactly, it takes to get kids involved and engaged,” said Dr. James Kracht, a Texas A&M professor of education who has spent the last three years helping to train Texas teachers to teach government.
In a nationwide survey of 18- to 24-year-olds conducted in June by the Medill News Service at Northwestern University, 63 percent said they mostly or completely agreed with the statement that schools aren’t doing a good job of helping young people get the information they need to vote. The poll of 1,008 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Since 1990, with the birth of the recording industry’s Rock the Vote campaign, many such efforts to get more young people to vote have met with little success.
All Texas high school students are required to take a semester of government, and some districts require a year. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the statewide curriculum standard all public schools must follow, requires that students be taught how to “analyze and evaluate the process of electing the president of the United States.”
But that requirement doesn’t always turn into student interest. Mrs. Harp’s 10-student advanced placement government class is certainly more interested than most in things political, but they say their peers find talk of things such as Social Security and prescription drugs boring.
“They’re so apathetic,” said Lindsay Garrison, 17. “They go, ‘Even if I could vote, it wouldn’t matter.'”
“Some kids get a bad rap, because they do care about the issues,” said Melissa Moreno, 18. “But most of them don’t pay attention.”
Mrs. Harp has made the fall election a major thrust of her teaching this semester. Her classroom is decorated with campaign posters, and each student is required to write a candidate biography, collect newspaper articles and assemble a campaign portfolio.
But she said there isn’t much excitement among her pupils. When she asked her students this week whether they were interested in having a party for Tuesday’s debate, the excuses came quickly: They had meetings, they had commitments, they were too busy.
“Everybody yawned,” she said.
“They reflect the apathy in the general public. It’s really sad for those of us who try to motivate them and energize them about the subject. But they don’t see the relevance to their lives.”
Mrs. Harp said she doesn’t think young people are completely withdrawing from public life, noting that more volunteer for causes they believe in than previous generations.
She added that she thinks schools don’t emphasize government enough. Earlier in her career, government was a yearlong course in Richardson, not just one semester, she said. Now the year is split between government and economics.
It doesn’t appear that students become much more politically aware once they reach voting age in college.
Dr. James Anderson, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, is teaching an honors section of American national government this semester, and he said his students have been unexcited by this year’s Gore-Bush matchup, the closest in decades.
“They don’t seem to be particularly interested or informed,” Dr. Anderson said. “I’ve been trying to get them focused on the presidential election, and I don’t know that I’ve had vast success.”
He said he would consider himself lucky if, after weeks of encouragement, “half, maybe two-thirds of his students” tuned in to Tuesday night’s debate.
Dr. Anderson said the lack of interest is understandable: “When I was 18, I don’t think I was particularly interested in politics, either.”
But he also lays part of the blame on high schools, which he suspects don’t put enough emphasis on government.
Dr. Kracht, the former co-director of the Social Studies Center for Educator Development, defended the Texas government curriculum, noting that elements of civics are taught in other social studies classes from fourth grade on.
“There is a disengagement among young people, but it probably doesn’t come from the knowledge base they get in the schools,” he said.
He pointed to research done at Indiana University that showed that the quality of a child’s civics education can have an impact – but only a small one – on how politically involved he or she will be as an adult.
Targeting earlier grades
Dr. Kracht, whose specialization is elementary and middle school education, said the solution should be a greater emphasis on civics in earlier grades.
“We need to get them when they are still at the point of forming opinions and core values,” he said. “We know that most of the important learning children do happens before age 10.”
He said that with so much early emphasis on reading, writing and math – the subjects of annual statewide testing – social studies and other fields are often squeezed out.
Mr. Gans said improved civics education is “an absolute pillar” in the effort to bring young people to the polls. But he cautioned that schools alone can’t get the job done.
“A majority of children today have parents who don’t vote, so there’s only so much that educators can accomplish on their own,” he said.
Ms. Mullan, president of the Texas League of Women Voters, agreed with an earlier start to civics education.
“I think we have to re-educate children, starting at the elementary level,” she said. “The schools are absolutely essential, but the problem is that the schools don’t have the time to do it.”
She said the rise of the Internet gives her hope that young people might find ways to be more involved. That hope might find an outlet in several current online youth voting initiatives.
One, called Youth-e-Vote (or, for the more hip, “You The Vote”), aims to have 10 million votes cast in a nationwide mock ballot of schoolchildren.
“It’s a way to get the next generation engaged before they get a chance to vote for real,” said Donald Tighe, spokesman for Youth-e-Vote.
Last week, Youth-e-Vote mailed unique codes to the principals of 103,000 schools nationwide. Later this month, students at those schools will have the opportunity to cast a vote in the presidential race online. The results will be announced Nov. 2.
The group is asking newspapers across the country to publish a full-page ad urging involvement in the project. Robert W. Mong Jr., president and general manager of The Dallas Morning News, said the newspaper has agreed to run the ad next week.
The news media also are being asked to publicize the results.
“It will allow young people to see their voice be a part of results,” Mr. Tighe said. “They’ll have a sense that ‘My voice matters; it mattered as much as some rich person’s or powerful person’s or a person out in the suburbs.'”
One of the biggest components of the Youth-e-Vote plan is a series of curriculum plans and other teaching tools for educators to use with their students.
“Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and we were very sensitive to give them as complete a package as possible to help them in their teaching,” Mr. Tighe said.
Whatever form a solution might take, activists such as Ms. Mullan say it must be found quickly, or else society risks losing potential voters for generations.
“Someone, like the schools, has to do something,” she said. “Otherwise these kids’ll grow up and be just like their parents.”