Charter schools as nation builders: Democracy Prep and civic education

By Daniel K. Lautzenheiser, Andrew P. Kelly | American Enterprise Institute

This policy brief is the first in a series of in-depth case studies exploring how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit

On a sunny Tuesday in June, the streets of Harlem, New York City, are filled with the usual midday crowd hustling in and out of subway stations and eating hurried lunches. One thing they are most decidedly not doing is voting. And this is a disappointment for a small army of schoolchildren dressed in bright yellow shirts.

The students in yellow attend one of the charter schools in the Democracy Prep Public Schools network and, with the help of their teachers and several parent volunteers, are waging a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign. The occasion is the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District, which encompasses upper Manhattan (including Columbia University, Washington Heights, and Harlem) and surrounding locales. Congressional primaries are typically low-turnout affairs in which incumbents have a massive advantage.

This year is different. Harlem’s long-serving member Charles B. “Charlie” Rangel has been dogged by ethics violations and was formally censured by the US House of Representatives; he is now facing a tough challenger in New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has the support of Harlem’s ever-growing Dominican population. Rangel is not the first seasoned congressman from the area to be plagued by political scandal; Rangel’s opponent in the 1970 Democratic primary, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was weakened by charges of absenteeism and misuse of public money after a 26-year run in Congress. But whatever criticism Powell and Rangel weathered in Washington, they both remain beloved in Harlem. As the students flock the streets near their schools to pass out fliers and encourage the adults to vote, they traipse down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Rangel is similarly situated as a Harlem institution.

Harlem, with its tradition of producing highly visible and powerful political figures, provides a fitting backdrop for Democracy Prep, a network of seven public charter schools with a civic mission at its core. Democracy Prep’s founder and superintendent is Seth Andrew, an energetic former teacher born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Andrew has deep political roots. As a teenager, he served as a congressional page after being nominated by Rangel; while still a student at Brown University, he ran for election to the Rhode Island state house.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”[1]

The fact that Democracy Prep is a charter school is crucial to its civic mission. Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV campaign. And if charters unearth new approaches, there is “no reason a traditional district school can’t also do it.”[2]

Of course, civic education has many dimensions. We might think of citizenship as a body of content knowledge that is critical to understanding the history and political structure of the United States: what amendments are in the Bill of Rights, why the Civil War occurred, and why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was important. Others may cast civic education as an effort to impart a set of dispositions or values, such as attachment to one’s country, being tolerant of others, following rules, and volunteering. Finally, we might think of civic education as the training needed to engage in the activities of citizenship—thinking critically about policy issues, voting, writing a letter to a congressman, or mobilizing others to take part in politics.

Citizens, parents, and teachers often have very different ideas of what schools should teach when it comes to civic education. One study of attitudes among social studies teachers and the general public found that the public was nearly twice as likely as teachers to say that schools should be teaching basic facts about American history and government. Meanwhile, teachers were more likely to say schools should prioritize civic behaviors, like voting and community service.[3]

As such, defining what it means to teach citizenship is difficult. Rather than a discrete body of content or skills, civic education is perhaps better understood as a combination of content knowledge, values orientation, and behaviors expected of US citizens. In this brief, we do not attempt to define civic education and then evaluate Democracy Prep relative to some ideal model. Instead, our objective is to describe Democracy Prep’s unique approach to teaching citizenship and discuss the lessons that other schools might learn from one charter school network’s experience. With civic education increasingly marginalized because of testing and accountability demands that focus on reading and math, insights from schools built around citizenship are much needed.

Though scholars have unpacked civic education in a number of ways, we distinguish between two basic strands.[4] Students are taught abstract citizenship: how our system of government works, what rights and responsibilities US citizens share, and an understanding of significant issues, events, and turning points in American history. Abstract citizenship is most often taught in the classroom; it teaches students about being a citizen and why it is important.

Operational citizenship, on the other hand, teaches students how to be an active citizen. This side of civic education relates to the behaviors and attitudes expected of American citizens, such as following rules, respecting others, performing community service, and making one’s voice heard via voting, rallying, or testifying. Operational citizenship is often learned through experience, some of which can be gained in school but much of which takes place outside of the classroom.

Think of the distinction between learning a foreign language via classroom instruction and becoming a fluent, habitual speaker of that language by living abroad. The latter will likely be much more difficult (if not impossible) without the former, but the latter is also the step that is necessary for achieving mastery and a lifelong attachment to a language and culture. As is the case with languages, the two sides of civic education are interrelated, and schools ideally provide a mix of both.

In any given school, the precise mixture of abstract and operational elements will vary depending on school context, mission, and leadership. Democracy Prep stands out for its emphasis on teaching operational citizenship. From an early age, students learn what it means to be a citizen by doing—mobilizing voters, lobbying state legislators, and teaching their own family members about the importance of voting rights. Meanwhile, classroom lessons about history, government, rights, and responsibilities provide students with the foundation and context necessary to understand why civic engagement is so important.

On the day of our visit in late June, Seth Andrew has an aggressive schedule, from classroom visits to each Democracy Prep campus to touring multiple polling stations to voting in the primary and using it as a teachable moment for a gymnasium full of students. At each stop along the way—from the blackboard to the voting box—we see civic education in action.

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