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Over the last few decades, our education system has consistently prioritized educating for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. The United States spends $54 per student on those subjects, but only 5 cents per student on civics education.

The result is an education system that has neglected preparation for engaged citizenship, and a divisive, dysfunctional political environment that is coming into sharper focus in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Now that the results of the 2020 election have become clear, at least to most Americans, we’re all asking questions.

How can America be so divided?

How could so many Americans turn a blind eye to ongoing racial injustices, magnified in the past four years?

Is this a victory for Democrats? Or do we continue to be a country divided by race, education and class?

From an education vantage point, can we sum up the election results by pointing to a split between college-educated and non-college-educated voters? 

What’s really wrong here? And how do we solve it?

There is at least one way. The opportunity to strengthen our democracy and bring our country together starts with re-imagining the entire role of schools as a way to cultivate the next stewards of our republic.

We need to invest in our schools and students as if our democracy depended on it. Because it does. 

It has become fashionable to say we should prioritize civics education in schools. These arguments often use statistics. They cite the low number of Americans who know all three branches of government. Or the surprising number of Americans who think Judith Sheindlin, aka Judge Judy, is on the Supreme Court. Or the abysmal scores students receive on civics tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Those stats make for good trivia, but they don’t tell the deeper story of why civics matters. 

Questions and results aside, it’s clear: Democracy is at risk.  And in these moments of deep division, there is a temptation to cast blame and oversimplify both the problems and the solutions.

The election of Joe Biden may mark optimism and a step in the right direction for many, but the work to repair our democracy is just beginning.

The challenges go much deeper than the divisiveness of the last four years. There are no easy fixes for the racism that has persisted since the country’s founding.

Or for the deep economic inequality that cuts through our society.

Or for the increasing polarization that has led to our demonizing people who are different.

Or for the reality of a democracy where individuals protest the actual counting of votes.

Many will propose policy solutions focused on structural change like making voting easier or reducing the impact of money on politics. These are all vital levers of change, but the solutions to our democratic woes must start with our education system.

It’s more complicated than the well-worn narrative of who gets a college education and who doesn’t.

Prioritizing civics is not purely about understanding government, but rather, understanding how to participate as reflective, engaged citizens. The entire purpose of our school system should be to foster this engaged citizenry.

Unfortunately, we’re not teaching students how to take part in meaningful discourse, or how to discuss controversial issues. We’re not teaching students the real history of democracy in this country. We’re not teaching about the ramifications of slavery and the Tulsa Race Massacre and the realities of police brutality, not just now, but throughout history.

This history includes the slow but steady inclusions made in our democracy, and the real gains made by the new progressive movement in the 20th century. We are not teaching students how to take action on issues they care about, or how to participate in the political process.

When civics education has been taught, it has been primarily rooted in a normalcy of whiteness. Recognizing this reality is recognizing a civic debt that schools and society owe most profoundly to students of color in low-income neighborhoods.

When we fail to properly prioritize and fund civics education holistically, our discourse and democracy erode. And that’s our current reality. Thinking the essence of a democracy is to stop counting votes during an election is just one small step away from believing in autocracy over democracy.

We need to invest in our schools and students as if our democracy depended on it. Because it does. 

We have an opportunity to re-imagine our education system and invest in a new kind of civics that empowers students to improve their communities.

Students in middle school and high school can debate local community issues that affect their everyday lives.

In math class, they can work to understand the true reality of economic inequality across the country. In science class, they can investigate the causes of, and potential solutions to, climate change.

School becomes relevant. Democracy becomes vibrant. This is not an immediate solution to our long-term woes. But it’s a necessary one. We need to repay that long-accumulated civic debt.

We can put education for democracy front and center by bringing this type of experiential civics to classrooms in all 50 states by 2026, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

To put our country on a path toward a more perfect union, we need to move beyond simplistic understandings and analyses of our democratic woes, and look to long-term, foundational solutions.

We need to build a better tomorrow where young people grow up in a nation that recognizes the benefits of both understanding and participating in their democracy. Our unity, our vibrancy and our collective future depend on it.

Scott Warren is chief executive officer of Generation Citizen, a civics education organization he co-founded during his senior year at Brown University. He is also a current visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

This Op-Ed about civics education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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