Civics is still a required course for most U.S. students. But for many high schoolers, the course comes in the spring of the 12th grade, when “’senioritis’ has set in for many of them,” Levine said. “The message is that civics isn’t really a priority.” (In 2010, just 24 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level in a national civics assessment.)
There’s also a significant disparity when it comes to access to civics education, with students living in more affluent areas more likely to take the subject and get involved in related activities than their peers in lower-income communities, Levine said. That’s only helping to widen the racial and socioeconomic gap among young adults who actually end up voting.
Why does civic knowledge matter? For starters, it’s one of the reasons we even have public schools. The core purpose of public education was to create an informed and engaged citizenry, one that would see the value in sharing the responsibility for maintaining the republic.
In recent years, a number of states—including Alaska, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Virginia—have put a new emphasis on schools’ responsibility for civics education and added more resources and opportunities for teachers and students to focus on the issue, according to the Education Commission of the States. However, as of June 2014, only two states—Florida and Tennessee—required civics assessments, the ECS reported.
In the 2012 report Fault Lines in Our Democracy, researchers for the Educational Testing Service outlined “the dismal state of civic knowledge among our youth.” Older adults with the most education and the highest income levels are the most likely to vote, according to the study. The authors concluded that improving high school graduation rates would in turn boost voter turnout. They also suggested that policymakers consider making voter registration a requirement for graduation.
High school graduation rates have been increasing, reaching a historic high with a national average of 80 percent for the class of 2012. But it’s going to take more than just additional graduates to produce more voters, experts say. In the 2010 midterms, less than half of voters ages 18-29 cast a ballot, and the top reason given was that they weren’t interested or didn’t believe their vote would make a difference, according to a 2014 report by CIRCLE, which examined voter habits nationwide.
Younger voters tend to align themselves more with a specific issue than with a political party affiliation. But CIRCLE’s research has found that having hot-button topics like gun control or marijuana legalization hasn’t resulted in a surge of young voters at the polls. (The exception, Levine said, is when there’s a dedicated and well-funded campaign by ballot measure advocates to target that particular demographic.)