After three years of youth advocacy, the Philadelphia school board is poised to pass a landmark voter education resolution codifying citywide efforts to register all 18-year-olds to vote and encouraging all students to be civically active.
The board, in an effort that’s believed to be the first of its kind in the state, will declare “that we believe that we must ensure that all students have access to an education that teaches and promotes the importance of civic engagement and voter registration” in a resolution widely expected to pass Thursday night.
School districts are already designated voter registration agencies per state and federal law, and a voter education curriculum already exists in the city, but the resolution cements and moves to the forefront year-round efforts to both allow for eligible students to sign up to vote, and for them to understand why it matters.
The district will continue to designate and pay a staffer at each high school as “Voter Champion,” the point person for providing voter registration materials to students as they become eligible. There will be an emphasis on a nonpartisan voter education and registration curriculum for 12th grade civics classes, and voter engagement assemblies for high school students.
The implications are broad: Every year, about 8,000 Philadelphians turn 18 and become eligible to vote, but historically, just 15% register.
Schools making a push to engage students around voting and civics makes a dramatic difference: After increased activism around voter registration by the groups behind this effort, 74% of city 18-year-olds voted in 2020, a number that bested overall citywide turnout, which was 66%. Research shows that those who register to vote early typically become habitual voters; the opposite holds true for those who do not register at age 18.
Statewide, about 180,000 new voters become eligible every year. So the Philadelphia work could become a model, said Thomas Quinn, a Central High social studies teacher, longtime civics education proponent, and director of education at Pa. Youth Vote.
“There’s 499 other school districts, and we’re tackling them next,” said Quinn.
Quinn and a group of students and supporters started their efforts here in 2019, making their voices heard in school board testimony, voter registration events and even theater actions staged outside the school district headquarters.
“Our generation is the key to change. We are the hope. We are the largest voting bloc,” Sheyla Street told the school board last year when she was a Central senior. She’s now a freshman at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“This feels like a victory,” Quinn said. “It’s a lesson for youth — things don’t always happen overnight, but if you’re organized and you stick with it and you’re persistent, you can get stuff done.”
With a sanctioned emphasis on voter engagement, the shift should also encourage politicians to take youth voters seriously, Quinn said.
Civic education is not just a box to be checked, said Lorene Cary, the Philadelphia author and former School Reform Commission member who founded and directs Vote That Jawn!, a group that aims to bring 18-year-olds and other first-time voters to the polls.
“Registering to vote is extreme, urgent, ultimate, high stakes,” Cary told the board during testimony in 2019. “It is grown-ass learning. Like learning to drive a car and date and make money: All kids want these things very much. Like they want and deserve a say in who runs our government and writes laws and make appointments.”
The work has also been pushed forward by Rebecca Allen, a Central High junior and current student representative to the school board.
“We hope that once students learn how important exercising their right to vote is, they will register to vote and make their voices heard at the ballot box,” Allen said in a statement.
Amina Wague, a student at Philadelphia High School for Girls, told the board in 2021 she believed their formalizing a voter registration policy would bring meaningful change, an increase in student voters.
“The reward will be future change within our government,” Wague said, ensuring “that this generation of students will become better adults, because the future depends on what we do today.”