UTSA Civic Engagement Summit

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak at the  UTSA Civic Engagement Summit, hosted by the UTSA Center for Civic Engagement. My speech was entitled “Building a Culture of Engagement in Public Schools.” Below are my prepared remarks:

Thomas Jefferson said that every citizen has a responsibility to be a “participator in the government of affairs.” This Civic_engagement_summit_flyer_2015participation necessarily requires what he called a “more general diffusion of knowledge.”

The debate about public education has become one about workforce development. While this must be a vital component of our public education system, we need to remember that the public education system in America was originally seen as necessary for the survival of the republic- a recognition that the republic can only be governed by well-informed citizens who engage in debates about public affairs.

I don’t know about you, but my recollection of discussing current events in high school includes one of two scenarios: 1) a sleepy-eyed recitation of the Preamble of the Constitution; or, 2) a teacher telling one student that she is anti-gun control and another that he is pro gun-control and making them contrive a debate on the subject. A version of this scene is playing out at every public school I have walked into: rural and urban, privileged and underserved.

Our understanding of the nation’s history and the philosophical underpinnings of our great debates must be informed by something better than distilling controversial issues into lists of pros and cons or mind-numbing memorization.

To say the least, we are falling short of Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

Students are leaving school soured on exploration and civil discourse. And then they see institutional failure everywhere:

They see Enron and 9/11 and the financial crisis and government shutdowns.

They see crippling student loan debt with bleak job opportunities.

They see their parents and neighbors who are police officers and firefighters mired in a prolonged stalemate with the City in the collective bargaining process.

They see a hyper-partisan media culture that rewards horrific remarks about menstrual cycles over serious public debates about nuclear treaties with Iran.

There is a gentleman I know who thinks there is a better way. Dr. Christopher Phillips is a fellow at Harvard University and the National Constitution Center. And he had a great idea.

He said that debate can lead to discovery if a diverse group of people come together to explore current events, constitutional controversies, and philosophical questions only if the discussion unfolds in a civilized and respectful way.

He formed a nonprofit called Democracy Café to fulfill this mission, which I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors for some time now.

Today, you can go to public libraries or coffee shops in Oakland or Milwaukee or Newark, and you can find groups of people participating in what he calls “Constitution Cafes.”

The concept behind Constitution Café is relatively simple: there is a facilitator who prompts discussion about a constitutional issue- say, the War Powers Act. Small groups discuss those issues for 30 minutes. And after the small groups have their conversations, they report out to the larger group in a discussion moderated by the facilitator.

I know when I first heard about it, I thought, “what group of nerds does this on a Friday night?”

It turns out that Dr. Phillips understands Jefferson’s vision quite well. And so does a brilliant and innovative educator named Patti Reyes.

Patti Reyes is a coordinator for curriculum and instruction at East Central Independent School District. Now, East Central is a mostly rural district here in Bexar County.

She saw that Constitution Café could be a way to get students jazzed about the issues they were learning about in school.

So she started hosting Constitution Cafes in the mornings at East Central High School. And dozens of students would arrive. They would talk about the implications of privacy on social media. They would talk about free speech. These are issues that are esoteric in a textbook but come alive when they are described.

It started out in the mornings before school. But the demand grew and more students wanted to participate. East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano and East Central High School Principal Shane McKay saw that they could integrate this programming with the school day.

The Constitution Cafes became part of the school day, so that reduced-price lunch students and those that rode the bus could participate.

The students are hungry to be engaged, and there are long waiting lists.

The last Constitution Café, which I had the pleasure of attending had more than 320 students attend. We discussed the Affordable Care Act. And the students visibly came alive at the knowledge that we cared what they had to say.

There have been some preliminary findings at East Central: students who participate in Constitution Café are more likely to go to college and they are more likely to be ready for college.

But the most important finding from a civic engagement standpoint it qualitative- and that is that the students who participate in these Constitution Cafes don’t regurgitate what they have heard on Fox News or MSNBC when they discuss current events. They think about public policy and they think about it critically.

This paradigm shift has long-term consequences.

My boss is Councilman Ron Nirenberg and civic engagement is his passion. In fact, at this very summit, he called for moving municipal elections from May until November to increase participation. He spent almost a decade working at the Annenberg Public Policy Center engaging students on a wide range of issues and they would study the long-term effect.

The findings were clear: two semesters of engagement in schools yielded higher participation four years out and eight years out.

Our public school systems should be positioning students to compete in an increasingly globalized and digital economy. But we should never forget that we cannot have a truly democratic society without a focus on civic literacy.

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