The Ultimate Civics Lesson
Dade's remarkable success at getting students to register results from close cooperation between district administrators, social studies teachers at each of the county's 25 high schools, and officials at the county elections department, according to Paul Hansen, the school system's former director of general education and social sciences. Hansen coordinated the voter program until this fall when he became a school principal.
At the beginning of the school year, the chairmen of the social studies departments of all of Dade's high schools prepare lists of their social studies teachers who have not yet been trained as voter registrars. Each chairman then works with the Dade County Elections Department to set up one-hour training workshops for the not-yet-qualified teachers. Upon completing the workshop, the teachers become deputy registrars with the legal authority to sign up voters.
Each March, the school system runs a computer search to find the names and class schedules of all the students in the county who will be eligible to register to vote in the coming year. (In Florida, citizens can register six months before their 18th birthday but cannot vote until they are 18.) The central office then sends voter registration forms, along with a list of the students in each social studies class eligible to register, to each school's social studies chairman. In May, the list is distributed to each social studies teacher.
Almost every senior in the Dade system will be included on this list because all are required to take two semesters of social studies.
Teachers distribute and discuss the voter registration forms during lessons on the importance of voting. The completed voter registration cards are checked and tallied by the department chairman, who then forwards the registration cards to the elections department.
But will the registered students vote? No follow-up studies have been done, so no one knows for sure how many Dade students cast ballots. But Horwitt and other voter experts are optimistic. "Voter registration is an especially big obstacle to young, first-time voters,'' Horwitt says, "and studies have shown that once people register, up to 80 percent wind up in the election booth.''
Other school districts, large and small, could easily adopt the Dade approach, Hansen believes. The costs, he notes, "are minimal,'' and the computer requirements modest. "I would think that almost any large school district would have some sort of computer tracking of students,'' he says. "Smaller districts could go through student information cards manually to find their schedules and birthdates.''
The Los Angeles Unified School District, headed by Leonard Britton, is beginning a major voter registration program this year. Britton was the superintendent of the Dade County schools when they established their program.
Louise Altman, New York director of Human SERVE, a national organization that promotes voter participation, says her group is making a major push to get urban school systems to adopt voter registration programs similar to Dade's. Thanks in part to Human SERVE's efforts, this year the New York City school system will begin sending letters to all high school students who turns 18, urging them to register. Human SERVE's next target is the Chicago schools.
--Jeffrey D. Porro