Blog: The Educated Reporter

Here Comes Super Tuesday: Are Your Local Schools Open?

Schools are the de facto polling sites in many states, forcing districts to cancel classes in the interest of safety and space constraints. (Flickr/Andre Bach via Creative Commons)

An unusually large turnout is predicted for Super Tuesday, and campuses in Fairfax County, Virginia — one of the nation’s largest school districts — have decided to cancel classes as a result.

“Record voter turnouts in New Hampshire and Iowa, and anticipation of an historic voter turnout from the Fairfax County Office of Elections, led the Board to believe that there could be significant logistical issues regarding parking and building access on March 1,” the school board said in a press release announcing the decision. “The Board was also concerned that the sheer number of citizens entering schools to vote will make it difficult to conduct a normal school day.”

But as the Washington Post reported, there were also security concerns stemming from the particularly volatile nature of the current election cycle:

The county’s board of supervisors and office of elections requested that the district keep children home March 1, initially expressing concerns that, in addition to the large turnout, anger over a Virginia Republican Party loyalty oath would cause a security risk at the polls. The state Republican Party had said in December that it would require those voting in the GOP primary to affirm they are Republican by signing a written pledge, a move Republican frontrunner Donald J. Trump and his supporters vehemently opposed because of concerns it would discourage first-time or independent voters.

(As the Post goes on to note, the “loyalty pledge” requirement was dropped and a Trump spokesman called the suggestion that the Republican frontrunners’ supporters would disrupt the polling process “ridiculous.”)

While Super Tuesday would have typically been a regular school day in Northern Virginia, in many states public schools are the de facto polling stations during election season. And that means having to cancel classes to accommodate the voting.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of savvy teachers leveraging elections for instructional inspiration, holding mock debates and having students vote for their favorite candidates. But in recent years, civics education has taken a backseat to preparing students for high-stakes tests.

For most U.S. students, civics is still a required course. But according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, the quality of a student’s civics education can also depend heavily on their ZIP code: kids in more affluent areas are more likely to take advanced civics classes and get involved in related activities than their peers from lower-income households.

So why should we care? There’s evidence that early engagement in civics activities school influences whether someone actually votes as an adult. Researchers contend that civics education gap translates into the racial and socioeconomic gaps seen in voter participation numbers.

Writing in The New Yorker last summer, correspondent Vauhini Vara detailed a remarkably effective push — led by the conservative Joe Foss Institute in Arizona — to make passing a civics exam a requirement for high school graduation.

Arizona was the first state in the nation to mandate it, and seven other states, largely Republican strongholds, have since followed. The institute plans to “cover the map” and pass similar legislation across the country, according to Vara’s reporting.

While the test material would be similar to what immigrants are required to know to become U.S. citizens, it could still be a tough haul for some kids and schools: Historically, U.S. students struggle to demonstrate proficiency in civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. And adding a new test means beefing up the curriculum and classroom time to prepare students to pass it.

But that’s a worthwhile investment, argues Robert Pondiscio of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and not a particularly onerous set of expectations. (Applicants for U.S. citizenship are asked up to 10 questions from a pre-published list of 100 possible queries, and must get at least six answers correct in order to pass. You can test your own knowledge here.)

“No one should confuse being able to name the authors of the Federalist Papers with solving the civic education crisis in America,” Pondiscio wrote in a recent opinion piece. “But we shouldn’t pretend that demonstrating a minimal knowledge of civics and history is too much to ask.”

Here are a few story ideas for education reporters covering Super Tuesday:

  • Are your schools open or closed? Are there opportunities — or expectations — for high schoolers to earn course credit or cash working at polling stations?
  • The youth vote can be a decisive factor in elections, and this year is no exception. Are more young voters turning out in your community this year? What are the political leanings and major areas of concern for young adults voting for the first time?
  • Are people citing candidates’ K-12 and higher education platforms as a factor in their decision of who to support? Education Week summarized the education policy positions of the top candidates: Bernie Sanders; Hillary Clinton; Ted Cruz; Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump. (As Slate’s “Schooled” bloggers Jessica Huseman and Laura Moser pointed out, Trump’s pledge to undo the Common Core is a nonstarter.)
  • What are the top education priorities for voters? (Take a look at EWA’s Campaigns & Elections Topics Page for the latest stories, key coverage, and more useful resources.)


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