YARMOUTH — Something is happening in just a few weeks that’s of extreme importance to our democracy.
I’m not talking about the June 10 primaries, in which I am a Democratic candidate to represent the people of Chebeague, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth and a portion of Westbrook in the Maine Senate. I’m talking about high school graduation, when – every year – Maine sends another 11,000 graduates into the world, hopeful for success and entrusted with the future of our republic.
Before or shortly after these kids graduate, they will turn 18 and inherit the sacred rights of democracy that countless Americans – men, women, Democrats, Republicans and independents – are fighting and dying to preserve. It’s a sacrifice that’s ongoing and persistent and cannot continue to be ignored, as we have, by failing to arm our children with the tools to participate in their government.
When our children walk through that constitutional portal of democracy this June, or perhaps in November, will they be interested, or able, to cast a vote intelligently? Burdened by cynicism and polarization, will they vote at all?
We must answer the perennial question: “How can we cure the dysfunction of government, at all levels?” It is the most critical, catalytic moment in our democracy, and we are failing in our mission to keep the beacon of democracy lit if we fail to provide future generations the tools to repair the widening breach in our political system.
Statistics show young voters are the least likely to engage in the civic process. What they don’t say is that probably eight of every 10 high school graduates don’t know the difference between a referendum and a refrigerator. We have to re-engage our youth in our democracy or risk losing it.
If fortunate enough to be nominated June 10 and elected in November, I will ask to be assigned to the Education Committee, where I’ll introduce a bill adding a six-hour practical civics curriculum for graduating seniors.
Hour One would deal with local government, the differences between mayor-council and selectmen forms, the venerable New England town meeting, property taxes, zoning, school boards and the like. Hour Two would discuss county government. Hour Three would deal with state government, how the Senate and House differ and what administrative departments do. Hour Four would deal with the varying levels of the judiciary. Hour Five would be a primer on Washington and how it interacts with the states in a republican form of government. Hour Six would be a hands-on lesson in how government affects daily life, watching a crew fill potholes or attending a meeting in which a business is asking for a zone change.
The critical element of this turbocharged mini-curriculum is the sacred promise that each and every message and detail is nonpartisan. My proposal has nothing to do with liberal or conservative and everything to do with understanding, bonds, referendums, mill rates and process. The messaging can’t be about politics in any way. The prime directive is learning the existing systems and structures of government, not endorsing particular people or policies.
Democracy is more than the operating system of government. It’s endured in the spirit and honor that is America for more than 237 years. It’s worth dying for.
We do not have to pass on to our children the dysfunctions of our democracy – the greatest of which is a simple lack of participation. At the very least, we can ask our graduating high school seniors, in the waning days of their high school experience, to take six hours of civics education as a form of public service.
If we did this for the 11,000 kids graduating this year, and continued it for five years, that’s more than 50,000 students energized to re-engage in democracy – or at least to understand it better.
If we as parents, teachers, relatives and mentors don’t convey to these new participants in our democracy that government matters, that each citizen can have a powerful voice and, most importantly, that “we the people” are the owners of our democracy, not the officials we elect, then we will have allowed further decay to our government, our way of life and the hopes and dreams of future generations.
You wouldn’t let your child operate your car without taking some form of driver’s education. Why are we giving our kids the keys to our democracy without teaching them how to operate it?
— Special to the Press Herald