Why Can’t We Educate Black Students for Democracy, Instead of Prison?

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Photo by Peeter Jontes via Flickr

With an incredibly vitriolic and negative election cycle upon us, and the election just one week away, we need to start thinking hard about how best to prepare the next generation for civic engagement.

An important place to begin is our schools which, for thousands of young people of color, have become pipelines into the criminal justice system

A report released this month by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA revealed alarming racial disparities in school discipline in America’s classrooms. Those disparities have made Black boys and girls especially vulnerable to experiencing lost instructional time.

Some of the incidents noted in the report have gone viral. One video shows a school safety officer slamming a child to the ground in North Carolina. Police bodycam footage shows the arrest of a six-year-old in an Orlando, Fl., elementary school. Another video shows a police officer in New Mexico wrestling with an 11-year-old schoolgirl. (He later resigned.)

Incidents like these over the past year are not isolated. They show what dangerous places our schools can be, particularly for young people of color.

The problem is especially worrying in high school and middle school, where harsher discipline is meted out to them, compared to white students.

At a time of civic and racial reckoning in America, Black students too frequently encounter school as a place of punishment. Relatedly, they don’t get as much access to opportunities to learn how government works, and where they can participate in our democracy.

Instead of centers for punishment, schools should serve as incubators of democracy. We need to transform the school-to-prison pipeline into a school-to-public-square pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline marks certain students as disruptive actors in classrooms, less fit to learn, more fit to be surveilled. It is a large driver of America’s larger problem of mass incarceration.

If this country is serious about decarceration and about achieving the goal of no longer being the leading nation in warehousing huge sectors of our population—again, disproportionately, those of color—schools are a necessary place to begin that work.

The stories and the data clearly indicate that schools are not experienced equally, nor evenly, by all student demographics. To address this problem, we must first name it clearly.

Schools undermine racial equity when some students receive restorative justice as a conflict resolution model, while others tend to receive suspensions and expulsions. Such experiences can also foster civic disjuncture, and alienation from our society.

Distrust in public institutions often starts in our schools.

The good news is that these results are not inevitable. Instead of preparing some students for prisons, America has the chance, now, to educate all students for democracy.

Experiential Civics

Building a school-to-public-square pipeline starts with ensuring that all students have access to an experiential civics education and a co-learning environment. In this form of schooling, students are universally seen as participants, rather than impediments, to understanding how politics works and where they can get involved.

An experiential civics education ensures that teachers can access the coaching, professional development and resources they need to make civics relevant, to connect the Federalist Papers to what happens in their local newspapers.

Experiential civics involves students in improving their communities, rather than seeing them as the problems in the first place.

Students debate and build consensus around an issue that personally affects them. They research and analyze its root causes, and develop an action plan. They put their plans into action by meeting with legislators, writing opinion pieces, creating petitions, and informing policy.

The process sets them up to be informed, politically engaged citizens for the rest of their lives.

A bipartisan consensus supports reducing mass incarceration in our society. And that consensus doesn’t stop at the doorstep of our schools. In our politically polarized moment, everyone who cares about the long-term stewardship of our democracy should be able to support preparing America’s young people for knowledge and civic engagement.

For voting at the polls. For serving on juries. For volunteering in their communities. For protesting on issues of their choice.

We have the opportunity and obligation—as does the next administration, whatever it looks like—to ensure that all students, particularly students of color and those with disabilities, can access a democratic classroom experience that values multiple learning styles, respects their lived experience, and prepares them for informed civic participation over the long haul.

This isn’t all talk, either.

Legislators in all 50 states now have the chance to pass laws to codify this. According to the Education Commission on States, lawmakers in 16 states already have passed bills on school climate reform. States like Massachusetts, Utah, Illinois, and Florida have taken steps towards experiential civics. Weaving the two together, lawmakers should lead by example—and statute—to ensure that all of our nation’s students can learn civics by doing civics, rather than experiencing classroom environments that treat them like they’re doing time.

Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Willkes

This month, 50×2026, a national civics education campaign, is doing just that—by launching an effort to elevate civics education standards in every state by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This campaign is a part of a larger national effort to strengthen our constitutional democracy.

As that system seemingly hangs in the balance, now is the time for all of us to serve as conductors, onboarding all of our young people—not just some—onto the comprehensive, civic learning journey they deserve.

Andrew Wilkes is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit which works to ensure that every U.S. student receives an effective civics education, preparing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active citizens. 

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