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Go vote. The best civics lesson requires you to leave the classroom

Election Day isn’t just for those 18 and older; younger teens can celebrate it too

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

UCI students vote early at the University of California, Irvine on Tuesday, October 30, 2018.

UCI students vote early at the University of California, Irvine on Tuesday, October 30, 2018.

Election Day is one time you shouldn’t scold your teenagers for cutting class. After all, walking out of school to vote or to support your friends’ constitutional right to do so is evidence they learned something in civics class, their grades notwithstanding. As the philosopher John Dewey wrote in his classic book Democracy and Education in 1903, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

On November 6 at 10 a.m., thousands of students under voting age from coast to coast will walk out of school and march with their voting-eligible peers to the polls to make a statement that their voices and votes matter. Election Day is the most sacred of holidays for a democracy, a time when citizens 18 years and older can select representatives charged with shaping our laws and running our governments. In the U.S., elections give meaning to the lofty opening words of the preamble to our Constitution: “We the people…”

The right to vote is paramount, because without it one’s very right to exist can be subject to the whims of others. Immigrants currently recognize the importance of Election Day in ways that women and blacks, who have historically been denied that right, know too well. And our children should understand it too, based on a similar rationale.

By law, youth under the age of 18 can’t vote in an election and are subject to the rulemaking of others on issues such as gun control, net neutrality, climate change and immigration, which affect them perhaps most of all. It’s like being required to attend a school without having a say in how it’s run, which is the prime reason that students must march. Youth should refuse to sit at their desks while others vote on more than 150 ballot measures across the country, dozens of which directly or indirectly impact education, according to the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

Related: Youth will determine the outcome of the 2018 midterms

The Future Coalition — a national network of youth-led groups — helped organize more than 500 school walkouts on Election Day across the country, according to reporting by The Nation, as part of a “Walkout to Vote” campaign. The student groups are building on the momentum from the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence, which drew hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C., and mobilized youth nationwide in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting.

“On November 6th, the voice of young people in this country will be heard loud and clear when we cast our ballots together,” said David Hogg, Parkland shooting survivor and a leader in the March For Our Lives movement, in a press release.

Some of the policy and funding proposals on the ballot have direct bearing on the kind of schooling students will receive. Colorado’s proposed constitutional amendment would create a graduated income tax for people earning more than $150,000 and increase the state corporate tax rate to 6 percent, potentially generating 1.6 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2019-2020, which would contribute to the state’s general education budget. In Arizona, a ballot initiative gives voters the ability to stop the expansion of its school voucher program, which would divert more money from public schools to private ones. And there are 36 governor races in 2018. Because education falls under the auspices of the states, potential changes in governors’ mansions will determine the direction of education in those states. Given the stakes, I would want my child, whether of voting age or not, cheering on his peers as they go to the polls.

Related: Before assigning homework, ensure that students have a home

Remember, it was the youth voice that helped lower the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971 by highlighting the flagrant contradiction that an 18-year-old could be forced to go to war through the draft but did not have the right to vote on conscription. We should all want the people affected by our policies to have a say in them.

Since 1845, when the U.S. Congress passed a federal law designating the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as Election Day, Americans as a group have voluntarily cast their ballots. Before that time, states held elections on any day within a 34-day window before the first Wednesday in December, creating an incoherent, decentralized process. Now that we have a national, secular holiday, it’s time we inculcate traditions that allow for the participation of our country’s youth.

So encourage your child to exercise his or her right to vote — or to support someone else’s child as they participate in the hallmark of a democracy.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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