Superintendent lauds program designed to help students become “lifelong voters”
School field trips designed to teach eligible students in the Guilford County Schools (GCS) about the electoral process by busing them to polling sites to vote has Greensboro embroiled in a philosophical debate about the role of schools in the political process.
The controversy over the field trips began to bubble to the surface last week as polling sites opened for early voting, which runs Feb. 13-29. The primary election is March 3.
Critics of the field trips include Republican school board members and Republican county commissioners who complain that liberal leaning educators could influence young students, many of whom are voting for the first time.
“We do tell leadership and our teachers and everybody to keep their perspectives on politics to themselves,” said Linda Welborn, the school board’s vice chairwoman who is Republican. “Do we have incidents where teachers of both political parties don’t adhere to that? Sure, we do.”
Welborn said there’s a good reason school districts don’t generally bus students to the polls to vote.
“There are too many opportunities [for educators] to influence kids,” Welborn said. “We’re talking about 17-and 18-year-olds. Do we need to take their hands and walk them into polling stations?”
GCS is believed to be the only school district in the state to bus students to the polls. A Wake County school board member asked her colleagues Monday to consider transporting students to the polls to vote.
Deena Hayes-Greene, chairwoman of the GCS Board of Education, said she hasn’t heard from any parents complaining about attempts to sway their child’s votes.
“About 99 percent of the feedback has been from parents who say they didn’t know their kids were going on the field trip,” Hayes-Greene said. “But parents had to sign permission slips, which gave them an opportunity to say they didn’t want their child to go [to the polls] without them.”
A 2019 report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) showed that 67 percent of voters between 18-29 reported voting for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections while 32 percent said they voted Republican.
CIRCLE is a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement.
Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase voter participation, said young voters aren’t as easily influenced as some people would have you believe.
“The data bear out that young people hold certain political views,” Lopez said. “The data also, in turn, bear out that young people hold their own political views and aren’t necessarily going to listen to their teachers.”
GCS field trips are open to 18-year-old students and those who will turn 18 before the General Election in November. Nearly 7,000 students in Guilford County are eligible for the field trips, officials said.
Jonathan Permar, the district’s director of social studies, brushed back charges that the district’s voter registration effort is a ploy to recruit students to vote for Democratic candidates.
“It’s part of building and supporting, reflective, responsible and active members of our community and of our democracy,” Permar said. “We consistently talk about wanting students to be engaged in our community and to be engaged in our state. It’s even part of our state statutes.”
Permar is referring to state law that requires the State Board of Education to ensure instruction in civic and citizenship education as part of North Carolina’s standard course of study.
The GCS field trips are an attempt at innovation as the school system launches its student voter registration effort in partnership with the North Carolina nonprofit You Can Vote.
The partnership and voter registration drive were announced by Superintendent Sharon Contreras in November.
“I think voting is a fundamental right and responsibility of every citizen,” Contreras said in an interview with Policy Watch. “Just because these are the newest members of our democracy with respect to their age, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to vote.”
Contreras noted that young people vote at lower rates than older members of society due to barriers to registration and other roadblocks that prevent them from casting votes.
“We believe by eliminating these barriers, we are empowering our students to become lifelong voters and to believe in their power to make a difference,” Contreras said.
Welborn said she began to receive calls Feb. 17 from concerned parents and educators about the plan to bus students to early voting sites.
She said teachers complained that the field trips have been poorly organized and that organizers and the administration did a poor job communicating with school leaders about their plan to bus students to polling sites.
“Why didn’t she [Contreras] say in November that as a part of this program we’re going to look into transporting children?” Welborn asked.
Contreras said Welborn’s outrage is disingenuous.
“We send thousands of students to the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] women’s basketball tournament, all second graders go to baseball games, fifth-graders all go to the opera. At no time has anyone said to me, wow, you sent 18,000 students to basketball games, it cost a lot of money, why didn’t you tell us,” Contreras said. “What is it about voting that they would suddenly want a new process and procedure for informing the board about operational matters?
Alan Branson, a Republican commissioner, said he isn’t against helping students register to vote. But Branson said he does have concern about busing them to the polls and the manner in which the district has handled the field trips.
“The concerning part to me is there was never any information given about how students would be brought to and from the polls,” Branson said.
Alan Duncan, vice chairman of the SBE and a former chairman of the GCS Board of Education, said helping students to register to vote and encouraging them to vote is an important part of civics education.
But Duncan said the organizers of such events must take care to fully share plans with the community.
“That’s an important reminder at this point and time and perhaps at all times that there’s political tension in our world, so it’s important that there be full disclosure and that the process be open and transparent and in no way could be interpreted in any way as influencing students in term of how they vote or look at voting,” Duncan said.
Meanwhile, Allison Riggs, who leads the voting rights program at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Justice, applauded GCS for helping students register to vote and for transporting them to early voting sites.
She pushed back against critics of the practice.
“Civic education is critically important in this country and has been devastatingly under-resourced in the last few decades,” Riggs said. “We can send students on field trips to Civil War battle fields, but we can’t send students on field trips to vote. That’s crazy. This is one of the most important field trips you can send a student on.”
Lopez and Riggs both said You Can Vote has a stellar reputation.
“I have worked very closely with them since its founding,” Riggs said. “They are meticulously and scrupulously nonpartisan.”
Riggs said research shows that people who vote at an early age continue to do so throughout their lives.
She said the voter registration work being done by GCS is helping to strengthen the nation, state and local community.
“There’s nothing more important to the healthy functioning of our democracy than making sure that everyone participates,” Riggs said. “One of the easiest ways to make sure that everyone participates is to provide easy access to the polls for young folks.”