The Midterm Elections in the Classroom: Why They Matter, and How Teachers Are Preparing

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 01, 2018 5 min read
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The midterm elections can be easy to overlook from a curriculum perspective. They’re not as frenzied as presidential elections. Voter turnout tends to go down. Even for teachers committed to addressing the topic in class, there can be practical restraints: The AP U.S. Government course outline, for instance, starts with the foundations of democracy, while reserving political participation and American political ideologies and beliefs for the end of the course. That means that those teachers who want to address elections by November have to switch the order of the units around, or otherwise be creative to fit them in.

Over the next few days, we’ll be featuring some teachers who are approaching the midterm elections in interesting ways as part of a new series here on Curriculum Matters.

Today, we’re highlighting Hayley Breden, a social studies teacher at Denver’s South High School. Braden teaches AP U.S. History and another course on social problems.

“We have to ensure that people understand that the office of President of the United States is not the only thing we vote for,” Breden said in a phone interview, recounting how one of her students inquired whether it was time to pick a president again. “There’s lots of elections, even at multiple times of the year, and it’s important to participate in those, just as it is to participate in presidential elections.”

Breden plans to focus on some of the contentious races on the ballot in her classes. But this week, she decided to prioritize a specific feature of Colorado’s election: its ballot initiatives.

Colorado is one of only about half the states that permit referendums to create or modify state law. This year, there are 15 statewide initiatives, including a highly watched one on school funding, in addition to a plethora of local ones.

But for all the interest in school funding, the initiatives don’t always warrant a lot of voter attention, Breden said. They’re further down on the ballot. They can be rather wordy in places. They don’t always get a ton of media attention.

For students, Breden said, learning about the referendums opens the door to the importance of voting more quickly than candidate elections. Candidates, after all, have to turn their campaign platforms into legislation after they’re elected. But with referendums, “they’re much more real, there’s more immediate effects from them. We’re voting on something that’s more tangible, while maybe less exciting than watching TV debates between two different people,” Breden said.

“I think it was easier for students to see how their lives are affected by voting,” she said. “And once a constitutional amendment is in place it’s hard to change, whereas if a person has served all their terms, they’re out.” (Colorado passed an amendment to the state constitution in 1994 limiting, among other things, how many consecutive terms local elected officials can serve.)

For her lesson, Breden set students in groups to work through eight of the 15 statewide ballot initiatives. They used the Colorado “blue book,” which outlines the text of each initiative, the arguments pro and con, and summaries. Drafted in government-ese, the book doesn’t make for simple reading—but of course, that’s part of the challenge. Then each group had to make a yes or no case about the initiative and try to win over their peers in class.

Here are some of the ballot initiatives that most piqued students’ interests.

Amendment 73 is the school funding referendum, which among other things, would raise money by a surtax on people who earn $150,000 or more. This was an interesting test case because Breden’s class includes both students from very wealthy backgrounds and others who are refugees who have only been in the country for weeks. In this debate, students wrestled with the concept of fairness: What happens if all wealthy people vote “no” and everyone else votes “yes?” What does it mean to live under a law you might disagree with? Alternatively, students also talked about the fact that under state law, only 55 percent of voters have to approve a referendum for it to stick.

Aside from those questions, Breden said, school funding feels relevant to students.

“A big concern a lot of them have right now is class size. Resources that the school has or doesn’t have, and inequities across different schools in the district—maybe those that some of their friends go to are less well-resourced or more well-resourced than ours,” she said. “So that one is very tangible.”

Amendments 109 and 110, which propose different ways to get more transportation funding in the state, either through bonds or a mix of bonds and a sales-tax raise. This one, Breden, said, got kids thinking about things like the fact that a sales tax, unlike the income-tax structure, affects all families similarly regardless of income. “One of the ‘no’ arguments they brought up for that initiative was, ‘Wouldn’t this affect low-income people more, because a higher percentage of their earnings is going to sales tax?’ ”

Amendment V, which would lower the age to run for the state legislature from 25 to 21. “That one they were super interested in; it’s people who are just a few years older than them,” Breden said. Students talked about the various ages that confer a new right—getting a driver’s license at 16, serving in the military at 18, buying alcohol (and marijuana) at 21, and getting a cheaper rental car at 25. In the end, “Some of my students thought that only experienced people should run. But others felt it was up to voters to decide who has enough experience,” she said.

See also: Education Week’s new civics education project, Citizen Z: Teaching Civics in a Divided Nation, has launched!

At the end of the lesson, Breden used Google forms to create an online ballot. Students got to vote on each of the eight different issues. Next week, once the results of the midterms are in, she’ll lead a discussion about how—and why—high school students’ opinions converged or diverged with that of Colorado voters in general.

Only a handful of Braden’s students are eligible to vote this fall, but she hopes that the lessons on carefully looking at the effects of voting will spur them to take it to heart.

“Midterms and especially some of these local races or statewide races don’t get as much media attention they might not be as exciting, or emotionally charged, but they affect people’s daily lives a lot more than some of these national races. And midterm voter turnout is low historically,” she said. (First-time voters surveyed by the Education Week Research Center say they do plan to vote, however.)

“In theory, all the students will talk to friends and family members and encourage them to vote,” she concluded. “That’s the plan.”

On Monday, we’ll visit a Syracuse, N.Y. teacher who digs into voter-turnout data in her classroom.

Photo: Hayley Breden in her classroom at South High School. Courtesy of Hayley Breden. Reporting was supported by an EWA fellowship grant.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.