Schleifer is research director at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and engagement organization focused on strengthening democracy, building trust and expanding economic opportunity. This is the second in an occasional series.
Rethinking how teachers teach civics and how students learn about democracy has never been more crucial.
Even before the 2020 election, many Americans were concerned about the state of our democracy. Then the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol reinforced the dangers of misinformation and extremism. The new Educating for American Democracy report for teaching civics and history reaffirms the importance of this work and provides a roadmap for pursuing it.
But schools can be more than settings for teaching and learning about civic engagement. Schools can also be places where people put democratic principles into practice. Not only can civics and history be more fully and equitably integrated into curricula and pedagogy, but schools and districts can also implement democratic practices to both improve how schools function and to build civic muscle.
This moment presents an opportunity to reimagine schools as incubators for more participatory forms of governance and decision-making.
Schools and school districts have historically lacked robust systems for teachers to work collaboratively on issues such as curriculum, student discipline and assessment. But a growing body of research shows that when teachers work more collaboratively, student outcomes can improve, teachers can be more satisfied in their jobs and teacher turnover can decrease.
In some schools, democratic processes and shared decision-making are already being put into practice. For example, students in some districts play roles in making decisions about spending through participatory budgeting or participate in student voice programs. Teacher leadership programs in places including Tennessee, Philadelphia and New York City — some of which work in collaboration with unions — provide professional development, coaching and networking so that teachers can have a greater voice in their schools and districts and in education policy. Unions in some districts also play roles in school improvement efforts in partnership with administration, such as in Meriden, Conn. Kentucky law mandates school-based decision-making councils that include teachers, parents and administrators.
What would happen if there were more widespread, sustained mechanisms to give teachers more of a voice in how schools are organized and operate?
Giving teachers more decision-making power could improve their job satisfaction and their willingness to stay in the profession. Retaining more teachers is important since teacher shortages were acute even before the pandemic, and in our recent survey 78 percent of teachers believed the pandemic will make it even more difficult to recruit new people to their profession.
The intense debate over when, whether and how to hold in-person classes during the pandemic may not at first glance feel like an issue for participatory decision-making. But scientific debates are also political debates, and in the case of in-person teaching and learning, they are also very personal debates for teachers, students and parents.
How much space is needed between desks? Do classroom windows open? Can elementary school students keep their masks on? What should we do about lunch? How can students interact with teachers and with each other during science labs or art classes? How can teachers do their best work while keeping themselves safe and healthy?
Our survey found most teachers think they should decide whether to hold in-person classes during the pandemic and that most parents agree. Beyond these concerns about masks, ventilation and distancing, teachers have seen firsthand how students have struggled academically, socially and emotionally during the Covid-19 outbreak -- isolated from friends and often in families affected by lost jobs and reduced incomes, and in too many cases grieving death in their families.
Our survey found both teachers and parents believe it is absolutely essential for K-12 public schools to ensure teachers have the resources they need to help students who have fallen behind academically or are struggling socially and emotionally because of the pandemic.
So what are the teachers' ideas for addressing those challenges in curricula, pedagogy, classroom management and assessment? These are all issues about which they can have a voice as experts in education practices, classrooms, students and communities.
Once the pandemic abates, allowing them to participate in decision-making can be an important way to make schools operate more effectively and democratically, to honor teachers' professional expertise — and put civics lessons into action.
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Civil rights groups have returned to the cause of criminals' political rights for the second time this week — this time in Tennessee, which has some of the strictest and most complex rules in the nation.
A federal lawsuit the NAACP filed Thursday alleges the constitutional rights of perhaps 350,000 Tennesseans have been violated by the "unequal, inaccessible, opaque and error-ridden implementation" of the law permitting felons to apply to vote again after completing their sentences.
The state stands out in a nation where such rules have a disproportionate effect on people of color, which critics see as an affront to both racial justice and an engaged electorate. The Campaign Legal Center, which drafted the suit, says one in five Black adults in Tennessee can't vote because of their convictions, the second highest disenfranchisement rate after Wyoming, which has a tiny Black population. The same is true for 10 percent of Latinos, a higher share than anywhere else.
Bids to make it easier for felons to register have gained considerable ground in the past decade, adding about 2 million to the rolls — not counting Florida, where a 2018 ballot measure was largely nullified by the GOP Legislature and the subsequent legal fight is ongoing. Another 50,000 will soon be added, because voters in California agreed last month to allow felons to vote as soon as they get out of prison. The ACLU this week appealed the dismissal of a lawsuit that would make that the case for another 53,000 in Minnesota.
That is already the rule in 16 states, and 21 others allow felons to vote after completion of probation and parole. Tennessee is among the remaining states where such restoration is not automatic, and usually includes a requirement to pay court costs and restitution — an impossible challenge for many ex-convicts, especially in tough economic times. Moreover, granting a felon's application is largely at the discretion of the state's 95 counties.
That "wild goose chase" violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the suit says, by making Tennesseans confront conflicting bureaucracies among court systems, the department of corrections and local election commissions to get their voting restoration approved.
The result, according to state records, is that in the past four years only 3,415 felons have secured their voting rights.
Of the more than 5 million felons effectively blocked from the ballot box, the nonprofit Sentencing Project estimates almost 10 percent live in Tennessee, a state with 2 percent of the nation's population. The 360,000 people who have finished probation and parole account for 7 percent of the state's adult population, the second-highest share in the nation after Florida.
Legislation to smooth the process has been consistently blocked in the General Assembly, where the Republcian majority is generally of the view that rewarding criminals too soon is an injustice to their victims. Proponents say that democracy is improved by allowing people who have paid their debt to society to perform the civic duty of voting. (The debate mainly falls on party lines, since the felon vote is reliably Democratic.)
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Tennessee's unique restrictions on first-time voters wanting to cast an absentee ballot have been blocked by a federal judge.
State law requires new voters to show up at their local boards of elections and present a photo identification in order to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot — a cumbersome process even without the discouraging of travel during the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has made the system unconstitutional, at least temporarily, Judge Eli Richardson of Nashville ruled Wednesday.
The law made exercising the franchise more difficult for the 128,000 Tennesseans who first signed up to vote in the two years before the 2018 midterm, about 3 percent of the state's electorate.
That number of new registrations is likely to be exceeded in the runup to November's presidential race, even though President Trump is the prohibitive favorite for the state's 11 electoral votes and there are no hotly contested statewide or congressional contests.
Keeping the rule in effect this fall "likely would be a violation of the First Amendment right to vote enjoyed by the American citizenry," the judge wrote.
Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has not said if it will appeal. If he does not, the judge says he must publicize the easement on state government websites.
The decision is another twist in Tennessee's hard-fought battles over voting rights just in the last year.
This spring the Republican-majority General Assembly repealed regulations on voter registration drives that were on the books less than a year. Cited as the strictest such rules in the country, they included criminal penalties for overzealous canvassers. Civil rights groups sued, saying the law set unconstitutional limits on political behavior and were illegally designed to suppress the votes of Black people and college students, and legislators abandoned the statute in the face of setbacks in federal court.
Republicans won an even more consequential courthouse battle over voting rules this summer, however.
A state judge in June ordered that all voters must be allowed to vote by mail during the public health crisis, including the August primary. But the state Supreme Court then overturned the absentee expansion, restoring the normally strict excuse requirements after the state promised that underlying health conditions would qualify someone to lawfully get a mail ballot.
It's unclear how many people will take advantage of that limited easement. Only 2 percent of Tennesseans voted remotely two years ago, one of the smallest numbers in the country.
Richardson, who was named to the bench by Trump, had earlier ruled against two other demands from plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit: to change the state's signature-matching rules for absentee envelopes and to strike down the state's law saying only election officials may distribute absentee ballot applications.
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There is no silver bullet that will save this pandemic-plagued election. When the president calls on his supporters to commit a felony by voting twice, and on the same day his attorney general fabricates a fake election fraud indictment, it's clear the climax of 2020 will be like no presidential race before.
But there's one solution that is so affordable, practical and achievable that it deserves special notice: ballot drop boxes.
For voters too afraid of the coronavirus to turn up at the polls, and worried the Postal Service will be too overwhelmed to deliver ballots on time, drop boxes — secure, locked structures that can be temporary or permanent — offer a relatively simple and confidence-boosting fix. Drop boxes are increasingly popular, may be installed at the discretion of local election officials, and will be used more widely than ever this year.
Of course, it's not that simple. President Trump has called drop boxes a "voter security disaster," and Republicans' post-election legal strategy reportedly includes challenging mail ballots that lack postmarks. In Pennsylvania, where election officials expanded the use of drop boxes for the primary, Trump and the Republican National Committee sued to block them, citing fraud concerns. In Ohio, GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose limited drop boxes to one per county, prompting state Democrats to sue.
But drop boxes could be hard to stop. A federal judge in Pennsylvania put the Trump-RNC suit on hold pending state court action, after Republicans failed to substantiate their claims of fraud. While only eight states explicitly permit or require drop boxes for voting, at least 35 plan to use them this fall. And where state laws are silent on drop box use, local officials have the discretion and authority to implement them, say advocates of absentee voting.
"This election season is one in which options matter, and where voters need as many reasonable, safe and secure avenues as possible to register their voices and their votes," says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has defended states' use and expansion of drop boxes in court.
A mail-in ballot surge swamped election officials and disenfranchised more than 500,000 voters during the primary, underscoring the need for alternatives, say voting rights advocates.
Drop boxes could alleviate so many of the chronic ills that plague elections — from long lines to equipment breakdowns to poll worker shortages — that it's a wonder they're not more widely used already. Says Myrna Pérez, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is advocating for easier voting: "It is such a common-sensical solution to some really challenging problems."
Even before the pandemic, drop box voting was going up. In Washington — one of the five states that were proactively sending ballots and return envelopes to all voters even before the pandemic — 57 percent of the ballots were returned to a drop box in the last presidential election, up from 38 percent in 2012, according to a report last month by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. Three-quarters of Colorado voters (another of the all-remote-vote states) returned their ballots using drop boxes four years ago, that same report found.
Drop boxes are embraced by many GOP election officials and have been endorsed by the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that offers mostly nonbinding guidance to states for balloting best practices. It recommends one drop box be created for every 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters.
Now, because of the coronavirus and intensifying postal delivery fears, election officials are poised to deploy drop boxes in record numbers. Connecticut (with 200 new drop boxes), Georgia (144), Maryland (270) and Michigan (more than 750) are just a few of the states that have dramatically expanded their use for the presidential election.
Some types of drop boxes require more funding and advance planning to install. The permanent, outdoor variety can cost $6,000, weigh up 600 pounds, and is typically made of steel, bolted to the ground and outfitted with a security camera. But temporary drop boxes may also be installed outdoors or indoors, and staffed at drive-through locations at peak times, or overseen by poll workers on Election Day.
In the capital of battleground Wisconsin, a Madison clerk capitalized on the security and convenience of book drops at libraries closed down because of Covid-19 to turn them into temporary ballot drop boxes for the primary. Election officials should also consider taking advantage of boxes set up for taxes and public utilities, and partner with institutions practiced at social distancing, such as grocery stores and banks, the EAC recommends.
A handful of states, including Tennessee, have blocked drop box use in the coming election, citing security concerns. But states that have used drop boxes extensively do not report problems with fraud, ballot theft or tampering. And some argue that drop boxes should be placed at each polling place throughout the country — during early voting and on Election Day.
This election faces multiple threats, from the danger that Trump will foment a crisis of confidence to poll worker shortages, health hazards, funding shortfalls and mail delivery delays. But a saving grace, some have suggested, may be the decentralized nature of our election system. Election officials enjoy considerable independence and local latitude. Ballot drop boxes are not a panacea, but their simplicity and practicality have made them a potential fix that more and more election administrators have decided not to overlook.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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