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November 8, 2010

Report Underscores Need for More Civics Education

A new study on the state of Virginia’s civic health reveals some disappointing trends but suggests an emphasis on civics education would have a positive impact on the future of the Commonwealth and the Republic.

Two institutions associated with the beginnings of American citizenship have partnered to produce a new study of the state of citizenship in the Commonwealth today. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier release the Virginia Civic Health Index 2010 today in the Capitol in Richmond at a Civics Summit, sponsored by the Virginia Commission on Civics Education. The event will be webcast at

The commission was established as an advisory commission in the executive branch of state government to educate students on the importance of citizen involvement in a representative democracy, to promote the study of state and local government among the commonwealth’s citizenry and to enhance the communication and collaboration among organizations in the commonwealth that conduct civic education programs.

The Virginia Civic Health Index examines voter turnout and other measures of civic engagement, such as volunteering, attending public meetings and donating to charitable causes. The trends among Virginia’s youth are generally discouraging – but show a few bright spots – leading the two institutions to call for more and better civics education.

“Virginia – and in particular Williamsburg and Montpelier – played a pivotal role in determining the nature of American citizenship,” said Colonial Williamsburg president Colin Campbell. “The future of Virginia and our republic depends on an actively engaged citizenry, so it is crucial that we not only become aware of our civic health but improve our civic education.”

“The results show the highest levels of civic understanding and participation among older generations of Virginians,” said Montpelier president Michael C. Quinn. “Evidence of significant improvement in the youngest generation of Virginia voters is noted in the dramatic rise of young voters in the 2008 presidential election. While we hope this means that the efforts made by Montpelier and Colonial Williamsburg over the last few years are beginning to impact young Virginians’ views of civic responsibility, there is significantly more work to do if we are to make a lasting impact on the future of the Commonwealth’s civic health.”

The report’s origins date to 2006, when the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) launched an ambitious program to establish a national index to measure the nation’s civic health. Working in partnership with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), NCoC produced an annual Civic Health Index.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Virginia to develop the state’s first ever Civic Health Index,” said David B. Smith, executive director of NCoC. “We recognize the importance of civic education in building a prosperous democracy, and we look forward to working with our partners in Virginia to achieve this goal.”
Earlier this year, Colonial Williamsburg and Montpelier agreed to partner with NCoC to prepare the first report focusing on Virginia’s civic health. The report was drawn primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) with supporting research from a 2010 survey of awareness and understanding of the Constitution and constitutional concepts conducted by The Center for the Constitution.

Among the report’s findings:

Voter Turnout

  • Virginia ranked ninth in the nation in voter turnout for the November 2008 presidential election with a rate of 69 percent. Virginia was 17th nationwide in voter registration with a rate of 74 percent.
  • Even in 2008, in a presidential election that was hotly contested and frequently described as a battle between generations, only 59 percent of Virginians ages 18 to 29 voted. This was dramatically up from 43 percent in 2004 but was still well below the 71 percent turnout rate of citizens 30 or older.
  • Young Virginians, though lagging well behind their elders, turned out in larger numbers than their counterparts across the United States. Nationally, 51 percent of young people voted in 2008, compared with 67 percent of older citizens.
  • Of Millennials (born 1981 or later), 56 percent voted. Of Generation X (born 1965-1980), 67 percent voted. Of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), 72 percent voted. Of the Silent Generation (born 1931-1945), 79 percent voted. Each older generation turned out in higher percentages than the generation that followed, with the sole exception of the Long Civic Generation (born 1930 or before), which turned out at a rate of 66 percent.

    Motivation and Involvement

  • When asked the top reason they would vote in a federal election, only 37 percent of younger Virginians chose “because it is my civic duty,” significantly lower than the percent of Virginians overall. Compared with their elders, younger Virginians were also less likely to rate “voting regularly” as an activity important to good citizenship.
  • Only 23 percent of Millennials volunteered, compared with 30 percent of Generation X, 31 percent of Baby Boomers, 32 percent of the Silent Generation, and 15 percent of the Long Civic Generation.
  • Only 4 percent of Millennials attended a public meeting, compared with 11 percent of Generation X, 11 percent of Baby Boomers, 11 percent of the Silent Generation, and 8 percent of the Long Civic Generation.
  • Only 4 percent of Millennials fixed something in the neighborhood, compared with 9 percent of Generation X, 12 percent of Baby Boomers, 11 percent of the Silent Generation, and 7 percent of the Long Generation.
  • Only 28 percent of Millennials donated $25 or more to a charitable cause, compared with 58 percent of Generation X, 66 percent of Baby Boomers, 71 percent of the Silent Generation, and 55 percent of the Long Civic Generation.

    The report notes that young people may vote, volunteer and donate less because they have less time and money. As they age, their activities may more closely resemble those of older generations. Nonetheless, the report says these figures “do not bode well.”

    Besides examining how young Virginians vote and otherwise act, the report considered what they know – in particular about the U. S. Constitution.

    Knowledge of Constitution

  • Only 59 percent of the youngest Virginians reported having a lot or some understanding of the Constitution, compared with slightly more than 83 percent of the oldest respondents. Only 34 percent of younger respondents reported having read some or a fair amount of the Constitution.
  • Only 27 percent of younger Virginians think the American constitutional system limits the power of government, and a strong majority (68 percent), when asked whether government is empowered to act for the common good, said they disagreed. Nearly one in five (19 percent) of young Virginians thinks the rule of law is only a somewhat important constitutional principle, and about 15 percent think limited government and separation of church and state are only somewhat important constitutional principles. In contrast, older Virginians were much better informed, or had more faith in the system.
  • Young Virginians are much more likely to think it is time for a new constitution. Of the youngest Virginians, 30 percent thought so, compared with only 7 percent of those 55 or older.

    In addition, while those with vocational training generally report they do not understand the Constitution, they have a better grasp of constitutional concepts and more faith in the functioning of the constitutional system than those with higher education.

    Colonial Williamsburg and Montpelier have long supported civic education. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, besides operating the world’s largest living history museum, actively supports history and citizenship education in schools and homes by engaging in a variety of educational outreach programs and activities, including publishing books, DVDs, recordings, and interactive digital media. Colonial Williamsburg’s Teacher Institute has trained more than 13,000 teachers from 49 states, and the electronic field trips bring history alive for four million students across the country. Most recently, Colonial Williamsburg launched in partnership with Pearson, “The Idea of America,” an interactive, fully digital, Web-based curriculum that teaches history and civics to high school students.

    The Montpelier Foundation established the nonpartisan Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier in 2002. The Center for the Constitution is dedicated to the study and teaching of founding principles and constitutional ideals to promote an understanding of the rights and responsibilities our democracy protects and requires. It has hosted seminars for more than 6,000 participants at Montpelier and throughout Virginia, including teachers from all 50 states, judges, legislators, and police officers. Dignitaries from 30 countries have attended the programs, as well. The Center for the Constitution is located on the grounds of Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison's restored home in Orange, Va.

    To obtain a copy of the Virginia Civic Health Index, visit the National Conference on Citizenship website at

    Panel Discussion at CNU Nov. 17

    A panel discussion “Virginia’s Civic Health, the Role of Education,” will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 in the Ferguson Center for the Arts Music and Theater Hall at 50 Shoe Lane in Newport News. The panel will be moderated by Quentin Kidd, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of government and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Richard McCluney, the Royce R. and Kathryn M. Baker vice president of productions, publications and learning ventures for Colonial Williamsburg, and Sean T. O’Brien, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier, will join Erin Porter, Advanced Placement government teacher at Menchville High School, and Shane Zavala, MAT history and social science teacher candidate, CNU, on the panel, which is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Quentin Kidd at

    The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural institution dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg is committed to expanding its thought-provoking programming through education outreach on site and online. Purchase of Colonial Williamsburg products and services supports the preservation, research and educational programs of the Foundation.

    Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at Philanthropic support by individuals, corporations, and foundations benefits the educational mission of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

    Montpelier is the lifelong home of James Madison, father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights, and president of the United States. Now that the home's recent $25 million architectural restoration is complete, visitors can see the progress of “Rediscovering James and Dolley Madison… through the Presidential Detective Story” with daily guided tours. They can also participate in hands-on activities, and archaeology; leisurely stroll the garden and forests; take in the galleries and many other attractions on the estate's 2,650 acres. Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montpelier is located in the heart of Virginia's wine country on Route 20, four miles south of Orange, Va. Montpelier is a National Trust Historic Site, administered by The Montpelier Foundation. To learn more, visit

    The Virginia Commission on Civics Education was established as an advisory commission in the executive branch of state government to educate students on the importance of citizen involvement in a representative democracy, to promote the study of state and local government among the commonwealth’s citizenry and to enhance the communication and collaboration among organizations in the commonwealth that conduct civic education programs.

    Media Contact:
    Barbara Brown
    (757) 220-7280

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