Does Civic-Minded Education Make Students More Likely to Vote?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Lizzie Martin, covers the new article by Brian Gill, Mathematica, Emilyn Ruble Whitesell, Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Sean P. Corcoran, Vanderbilt University, Charles Tilley, Mariel Finucane and Liz Potamites, Mathematica, “Can Charter Schools Boost Civic Participation? The Impact of Democracy Prep Public Schools on Voting Behavior” 

From increasing our knowledge of political issues to giving us the skills to participate in political processes, education seems poised to play an essential role in cultivating informed and engaged citizens. However, research on how education prepares students for civic participation as adults has been inconclusive, leaving questions about the effects of education on students’ future civic engagement unanswered. Are alumni of civic-minded schools more likely to vote?

In a new paper, Gill, Whitesell, Corcoran, Tilley, Finucane, and Potamites take up this question. Using data from Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools in five states across the country, they explore the effects of mission-driven education on voter registration and participation in the 2016 election.

As a network of charter schools, Democracy Prep is publicly authorized, funded, and regulated, but it operates autonomously. It also largely serves students who might be less likely  to vote: the prior voter registration rate of parents of children applying to Democracy Prep was 60 percent, about 10 percentage points below the national average. Guided by a mission statement that emphasizes preparation for active citizenship, Democracy Prep schools give students practical opportunities in addition to educational activities related to civics and government. Democracy Prep students hear from visiting legislators, participate in public meetings, and support “Get Out the Vote” campaigns.

Because Democracy Prep’s admissions lottery is randomized, it allows the authors of this paper to compare the civic behavior of students who were admitted to those who were not. Random admission means that any differences in their voting behavior can be attributed to differences in their education, rather than to pre-existing differences between the children themselves.

By matching Democracy Prep lottery and enrollment records for 1,060 students to a national voting database, the authors find that attending a Democracy Prep school increased students’ voter registration rate by about 16 percentage points and students’ voting rate of by about 12 percentage points in 2016. Those effects are substantial: text message voting reminders have been shown to increase voting rates by a fourth of that amount, or about 3 percentage points. Though receiving a text message on Election Day is quite different from getting a comprehensive education, the comparison makes clear that the latter can have a considerable influence on students’ future civic engagement. Given relatively low historical voter turnout rates among young adults, this is particularly valuable information.

This study suggests that public education can effectively encourage students to be informed, participatory citizens. It also raises further questions. What sets Democracy Prep alumni apart? Which of their experiences at Democracy Prep schools are most formative? How can other educational institutions construct similar cultures of civic engagement? Democracy Prep’s apparent success in this area indicates that research on how schools can effectively impart civic values is worth pursuing.

  • Lizzie Martin is a joint Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests center on U.S. public opinion and foreign policy. Lizzie holds a Master in Public Affairs and an A.B. in public policy and creative writing from Princeton University. Through the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, she also served as a graduate fellow at the U.S. Department of State.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review, First View
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.