Middle School Civics Debate Heats Up in Springfield

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director


Middle school civics is on the legislative docket in Springfield, with strong support for House Bill (HB) 2265 to require a semester of civics in grades 6, 7, or 8. It passed the House Education Committee on School Curriculum and Policies yesterday and advances to the House floor with an April 12th deadline. Proponents filed 755 witness slips, with only 31 opposed. Among the organizational proponents are the Barat Education Foundation, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Teachers Union, Citizen Advocacy Center, Forefront, League of Women Voters of Illinois, Metropolitan Planning Council, and Teach Plus Illinois.

There is opposition to the legislation, and what follows are responses to legitimate questions posed by those leaning “no.”

Aren’t the new Illinois Social Science Standards sufficient to insure integration of civics throughout the middle grades?

I led the task force that wrote the new social science standards and they have proven transformational at the high school level when paired with the new civics course requirement. Without such a mandate in the middle grades, however, there is no accountability for schools or districts failing to implement the standards. I respect local control and know of a few districts that are implementing the standards with fidelity across subject areas. Unfortunately, this is the exception, not the norm.

We have strong anecdotal evidence that districts throughout the state are eliminating the social studies entirely, subsuming them within ELA. And nationally, 44% of districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001.

This comes at a time when democratic institutions are in peril and only 23% of 8th graders test proficiently on NAEP Civics (and only 12% of Hispanic students and 9% of Black students).

Won’t a semester of civics in middle school crowd out the other social studies disciplines like history, economics, geography, and financial literacy?

HB 2265 requires only a semester of civics, leaving two and a half years to address the other important social studies subject areas. The requirement aligns well with the new state social science standards (specifically a grades 6-8 civics strand) and the longstanding Constitution mandate. Most schools teach ancient civilizations in 6th grade and US History in 7th and 8th. We believe that civics would complement the latter in 8th grade.

Isn’t this another unfunded mandate hoisted upon financially-stressed schools and districts?

Four years ago, the McCormick Foundation committed to contributing and raising a combined $3M to support statewide high school course implementation. Since October 2015, McCormick has provided more than 1,300 hours of professional development to 10,000-plus teacher attendees statewide.

These professional development opportunities are impacting teachers’ classroom instruction. Based on pre- and post-assessments of regional workshops in the summer of 2017, feelings of competence grew measurably among attending educators in key instructional strategies, including discussion of current issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes.

A Spring 2018 survey shows strong civic outcomes among students as a result of course exposure, including enhanced knowledge and skills. Students are also more likely to report engagement in a range of civic behaviors, including serving as a leader in a group or organization, discussing politics online, volunteering, and helping to make their city or town a better place to live.

In addition to $3M of investments in Grades 6-12 civic education in Illinois in 2019, McCormick has committed $400K per year over three years to support presumptive implementation of a middle school civics course. We are in the process of recruiting other foundations and corporate funders to join this follow-up effort poised to leverage the success of high school implementation.

Vote at 16?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

I recently had the privilege to present “Inquiry in the Middle Grades” at the DuPage County Social Studies Conference at Metea Valley High School, an Illinois Democracy School. In the session, participants explored the essential question, “Has suffrage expanded far enough?” to demonstrate the instructional shifts in the Illinois Social Science standards and the proven practices of civic education embedded in HB 2265 which requires students to engage in current and societal issue discussions within a semester of civics in the middle grades.


To start the inquiry, we began with the staging question, “What restrictions on voting would you support?” Age, citizenship, registration were the most popular categories. There was less agreement on distinctions based on criminal status, education and wealth (see image below).


While all can agree age is an appropriate category to use to limit the franchise, there is less consensus on what age that should be. Vote 16 is a national initiative to lower the voting age to 16 years of age for local elections and elevate this issue to a national level. The Vote 16 initiative builds on the positive trajectory of youth participation in recent elections and young people taking center stage in initiatives such as 22x20 campaign which endeavors to get the 22 million teens who are eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential race registered and prepared to participate.

The Vote 16 movement has gained traction in the District of Columbia, Oregon and the state of New York where legislators have deliberated extending franchise rights to 16 year olds. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment to lower the voting age to 16 nationwide. This current and societal issue discussion topic was recently highlighted by the August edition of Junior Scholastic magazine. Youth participation in voting is a focus in several bills introduced in the Illinois General Assembly this session. House Bill 3106 allows 16-17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. State Representative Daniel Didech (D-59) introduced a constitutional amendment (HJRCA 28) to lower the voting age in Illinois to 17. Didech is a graduate of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, an Illinois Democracy School.

Has suffrage expanded far enough? Here are a few more resources to engage your students in this lively topic using the case study of the Vote 16 movement.
What essential questions do you use to have students explore issues around suffrage rights? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

Youth Voter Turnout Up in 2019 Chicago Municipal Elections; Future Voters on a Positive Trajectory

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Much has been made about the lackluster turnout in Chicago’s municipal elections last week, particularly among younger voters. Personally, I have found coverage of turnout incomplete, and analysis of the underlying reasons for poor participation wanting. What follows is an attempt to at least partly rectify these concerns, drawing from data provided by the Chicago Board of Elections and a conversation with their spokesman, Jim Allen.

Let’s begin with the understanding that voter turnout tends to decline the more local the election, from presidential, to congressional midterms that include the governor in most states, to muncipal elections. The latter are often held off cycle, purposely so, to protect local officeholders from national waves like those enjoyed by Republicans in 2010 and 2014, and Democrats in 2006 and 2018.

In Chicago, this means primary elections are held in the dead of winter following hotly-contested statewide elections in the fall. In most cycles, the February primary is decisive, as candidates garnering a majority of the primary vote win outright. This was the case in 35-plus wards and with the City Clerk (uncontested) last week.

In both 2015 and 2019, no mayoral candidate broke the fifty-percent threshold, resulting in an April runoff. It’s fair to say that a fourteen-candidate field in 2019 made for difficult decision-making, many voters walking into the voting booth on election day undecided and some preferring to take a rain check until the field was winnowed to two. Moreover, only Amara Enyia made a concerted effort to mobilize young voters.

While absentee ballots are still trickling in, a little more than a third of registered voters cast ballots last week, but the 35.3% turnout is the second highest this century behind 2011. And beneath the surface is a much larger denominator given the massive spike in registration and turnout last fall.

Here’s how November 2018 turnout broke down by age group:

Age Group Voted Registered Turnout
18-24 54,780 139,138 39.45%
25-34 189,097 352,138 53.7%
35-44 163,386 272,865 59.9%
45-54 151,682 232,071 65.4%
55-64 160,673 228,211 70.4%
65 and older 192,433 278,485 69.1%

If last fall was the benchmark, then last week’s turnout was deeply disappointing, but numbers were actually up across the board by age group from 2015 to 2019, and the most pronounced gains, albeit modest, were among younger voter cohorts.


Voting, and civic engagement in general, follows a life cycle effect as evident in turnout over the past two municipal election cycles. Young people tend to be more transient, and as we age, we establish ourselves at the community level and have a sense that the stakes of elections are higher with home ownership, tax obligations, and children in public schools, among other variables.

Trust that the next generation of voters is well on its way to lifelong, informed, and effective participation in our democracy. Chicago Public Schools has developed a model civic engagement program for students, including a high school civics course in all but a few IB schools one year ahead of schedule. CPS is also well-positioned for a parallel middle school requirement given the traction that service learning, student voices committees, and revised curriculum are gaining in elementary schools serving students grades K-8.

And nonprofit organizations like Mikva Challenge and Chicago Votes deserve credit for providing student election judges in every Chicago ward in the case of the former, and school-based parades to the polls in the case of the latter.

Finally, state legislation to allow municipalities to lower the voting age to 17, and separately, to enable prospective voters as young as 16 to preregister to vote under Illinois’ new automatic voter registration system would allow CPS and districts throughout the state to further align civic learning opportunities with voting and elections.

The Buzz About the Budget

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Recently, Governor J.B. Pritzker gave his first budget address to the Illinois General Assembly in a time of dire financial strain for the state. The address included a plan for more than one billion dollars in new revenue through taxation. Pritzker's address came on the heels a federal shutdown and last minute spending bill averting a second shutdown.

The buzz about both the state and federal budget provides #CivicsIsBack classrooms with a wealth of current and controversial issue discussion topics related to poverty, wealth, power, the role of government, corporate responsibility, resource allocation, and the market.

To engage students in inquiry related to the budget, here are some resources to start with:
What resources do you use to help your students understand the budget process- local, state or federal? Please share in the comment section below or tag me on Twitter at @daneels_m. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.