Nationally, Pennsylvania is ranked first among states in which young voters will have the greatest impact on races for U.S. Senate and governor in the 2022 midterms, and down-ballot races for state legislature will have enormous consequences for students and schools. Imagine what would happen if tens of thousands of new teen voters showed up to vote in Pennsylvania this year.

Young people in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania have the potential to hold lawmakers accountable by turning out to vote, not just for presidential elections, but twice a year in their local and state primary and general elections. However, with only 17% of 18-year-olds registered to vote in Philadelphia-area public schools, it’s no wonder elected officials tend to ignore the issues experienced by our city’s youth.

Low teen voter turnout in off-year elections is not the students’ fault. Until recently, our public schools have neglected the critical job of fostering civic learning and engagement. This February, the Philadelphia Board of Education took the critical step of passing a Student Voter Education and Registration Resolution, which codifies year-round steps the district will take to register high school students to vote and curriculum to teach them about the civic process every year.

We hope to see the school board take the final step of encoding voter engagement into the School District policy manual. Official policies like this will ensure that all students have what they need to engage with our democracy. It took nearly three years of advocacy by PA Youth Vote and a coalition of dozens of organizations and individuals writing letters, testifying at board meetings, and even dancing on the School District steps for the Philadelphia Board of Education to take the lead on civic education. Now it’s time to show other school districts around the region and the commonwealth.

Civic educators teach the facts of government, but we also need to support students in learning about the practice of democracy: how to “do” government right, become fully aware of the democratic process, and build a sense of trust in their ability to move the needle.

The Philadelphia school board’s resolution is a milestone for our city and the next generation. It’s a model for Pennsylvania’s 499 other school districts to replicate, to engage nearly 180,000 new voters each year, and to build a voting bloc of public school students and lifelong voters that will command the attention of policymakers.

The good news is that we know how to make this happen. When schools supply a list of eligible students, implement year-round efforts, connect issues and politics, and engage elected officials with schools and students, schools achieve voter registration rates of over 90%. And when teens are registered and informed, they vote. According to City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, 74% of registered 18-year-olds in Philadelphia voted in the 2020 election, compared with a 66% turnout rate for all ages citywide.

Passive approaches to civic engagement don’t work. Simply handing out voter registration forms to teens will neither teach nor inspire them to vote. We need to actively and compassionately walk our young people through the democratic process and provide them with nonpartisan tools for critical thinking. Teachers need to help students understand how the issues they care about — race, violence, poverty, human rights, the environment, education — are impacted by the lawmakers we elect, and that young people can influence public policy through their vote.

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Who has the time and energy to mobilize this massive voting bloc? The students themselves, with the guidance and support of educators — but we need to compensate both youth and teachers to establish and sustain these new voter initiatives. The School District of Philadelphia is paying teachers as “voter champions” to take on the task of student voter engagement. PA Youth Vote is also offering stipends for staff voter champions and youth voter organizers in Philadelphia and selected underfunded schools in the counties around the city that serve high percentages of Black and Latino students.

Continuing to expand this combination of grassroots organizing and district-level policy change will grow a culture of youth voting in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers should seek out their youngest constituents for input on the issues that matter to them.

When students graduate with well-developed habits of civic engagement, they’ll wield electoral influence, and their younger siblings may see the impact of fairly funded schools and public policy more in tune with their needs.

Thomas Quinn is a social studies teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, the education director of PA Youth Vote, and a Teach Plus Pennsylvania policy fellow. Abigail Dym is the research director at PA Youth Vote and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. Info@PAyouthvote.org