Young Americans are very eager to participate in democracy, as shown by their rapidly rising voter turnout rates and their high volunteering rates. By participating, they gain skills, habits, and values that last a lifetime--according to rigorous longitudinal research. They add important insights to any public discussion that involves youth or the long-term future of the country. Research shows that certain civic opportunities have substantial positive effects on their participation. These opportunities include moderated discussions of current events in school; high-quality community service projects with a dimension of research and planning; youth production of news media; and youth service on boards and committees.
Unfortunately, providing civic opportunities for youth is a very low public priority. Civic education is hardly mentioned in No Child Left Behind. None of the opportunities mentioned above are encouraged by "high stakes" tests. The Department of Education does not fund research into civic education, and hardly funds any programs. There are good service opportunities funded by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, but they are unconnected to other federal initiatives, such as the White House Office of Public Engagement.
One of the results of this low level of support is extreme inequality in civic opportunities. Poor children, children in stressed schools, and children who are academically "at risk" rarely receive civic opportunities that are common in high-performing suburban schools. Unless we address this problem, we will miss the voice of low-income kids in any public process.
The White House Office should work closely with the US Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and other federal programs (e.gh., YouthBuild in HUD) to create an integrated and well supported structure for engaging a representative sample of young people in public deliberations about social issues.