POLITICAL science and civics -- let's see, those are the classes about guys who founded the country a couple of centuries ago, right? What point does any of that have these days?
By Burl Burlingame
Even though they are excluded from voting until they reach adulthood, students are citizens too. As an adult privilege, though, voting is a distant third behind driving and drinking, and kids generally don't feel like politics has anything to do with them.
It doesn't help that their parents don't feel like voting either. As the 20th century drew to a close, only half of those Americans eligible to vote do so -- meaning that issues were being decided and office elected by a minority of voters.
Issues like these were on the mind of Lyla Berg when she first heard of Kids Voting USA back in the mid-'90s. A former Deparment of Education principal who retired to work on a doctorate, Berg, also the host of "Liveline" Saturdays at 7 p.m. on 'Olelo's Views, saw Kids Voting as a way of combining "community and government and education and children, all things dear to my heart."
She's also working with the D.O.E. on a children's program called "Voices and Wings," designed to develop citizenship.
She's now president and CEO of Kids Voting Hawaii, the local chapter, as well as state coordinator for the Center for Civic Education, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
"I'm a vigilante," she said of her involvement with the programs. "I see so many people not demonstrating care for one another. There's too much violence, too many children being abused and neglected. And adults are also disenfranchised. We're so concerned with getting ahead that we don't care who gets left behind.
"It's fearful for me as to what kind of world my son is growing up into."
Beginning as a statewide initiative in Arizona in 1988, Kids Voting is now entrenched in 41 states. Hawaii, however, is the only state other than Arizona that offers the program statewide. It debuted here in 1996, and in the 1998 election attracted more than 71,000 voters ranging from kindergarteners to high-school seniors.
"This year we'd like to have at least 100,000," said Berg.
Kids generally don't feel that democracy includes them, and this civic ghettoization sticks with them into adulthood. In 1994, only a fifth of those eligible to vote under 24 years old did so.
"Even student elections in school aren't grounded in reality," said Berg. "One civics class in 12 years of schooling isn't going to create a responsible citizen. It isn't going to cut it."
Like their parents, the kids will get to vote for president and other politicians Nov. 7, although Kids Voting results won't count toward the real election. Unlike their parents, the kids will also vote on a number of issues affecting them directly.
Even though the school curriculum is standardized throughout the country, state school councils determine a list of questions designed not only to give planners useful demographic data, but to stimulate critical thinking among the kids.
The questions are localized. For example, one of the Hawaii queries deals with whether or not canoeing and surfing should be established as interscholastic sports events.
Also unlike their parents' ballot, the Kids Voting ballot includes pictures of the candidates. This is an idea that might be useful for parents too.
"This isn't a mock election; it's absolutely real for the kids, and it's professionally operated," said Berg. "The voting booths are at the state polling places. The ballots are collected on the neighbor islands and flown to Oahu for counting, and the first printout will be made early that evening. There will be at least three or four updates through the evening until we get the final numbers."
The Hawaii program is largely underwritten by American Saving Bank, with help from Rotarians and Jaycees.
The long-term payoff for Kids Voting will be informed young citizens who feel like they're part of the system by the time they can cast real votes.
The immediate and hidden agenda, however, is to make citizenship a family affair. Parents are more like to vote when their kids are egging them on and asking questions about the questions. Every community that has a Kids Voting program has seen an increase in adult voting, some by as much as 9 percent.
"We're educating kids, but we're actually educating families," said Berg. "It begins a communication process around the family table, when parents and kids talk about the issues of the day."
Here are the issues that will be on the Kids Voting 2000 ballot:
1. Should students evaluate their teachers?
2. Should the student member elected to the Board of Education have voting rights?
3. Should crimes committed on school property carry more severe punishment than crimes committed elsewhere?
4. Should vending machines be allowed on school campuses?
5. Should soda be sold on school campuses?
6. Should the driving age be raised from 15 to 18 years of age?
7. Should canoeing and surfing be established as competitive sports in the Hawaii interscholastic sports program?
8. Should fluoride be added to the drinking water in Hawaii?
9. Should all schools operate year round?
10. Should all schools maintain the same schedule for holidays and vacations?
Sunday -- Kids Voting Family Sunday at Bishop Museum, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Also with entertainment by Kapena, Ka'ala Boys and Maliko Blend, food and craft booths, and opportunity to view "A T rex Named Sue" dinosaur exhibit. Admission is $3 per person or $10 per family of four (two adults and two kids under 13) for residents and military personnel with valid I.D. Students from kindergarten through grade 12 may also create a work of art on 12-by-17-inch paper on the theme "My Dream for Hawaii" and present it at Family Sunday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. for one free admission to the event. Art work will be entered in a contest and winners will receive an annual family pass to Bishop Museum. Call 847-3511 for more information.
Kids Voting calendar
Oct. 11 -- Rally at Kaiulani School, 8:15 a.m.; at Pearl Harbor Elementary, 10 a.m.
Oct. 13 -- Rally at Momilani Elementary, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 26 -- Rally at Mililani Waena Elementary, 8:30 a.m.
Nov. 2 -- Rally at Kamiloiki School, 8 a.m.
Nov. 6 -- Rally at Laie and Waimalu elementary schools, 8:30 a.m.
Nov. 7 -- Voting day with Election Night Celebration at Ala Moana Center Stage, 5 to 9 p.m.
For more information, call 593-VOTE (8683).
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calendars and events.