Published On: January 25, 2021
Home>Participatory Budgeting>Improving Civics Education with Participatory Budgeting

This post explores how Participatory Budgeting (PB) creates experienced-based opportunities in civics education and help us move towards our mission of creating tomorrow’s impact investors. It complements the post, Real Financial Literacy Requires Real Money.


Civics Defined

The dictionary defines civics as “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship.” However, just as studying addition and subtraction does not make you financially literate, merely studying our birthrights and obligations as citizens is insufficient to sustain and advance a democracy. As citizens, we must exercise our rights to fulfill our duties and responsibilities.

This includes:

  • Staying informed of the issues affecting our community
  • Respectfully expressing our opinions
  • Seeking to understand the opinions of others
  • Participating in elections at all levels

And there is an undeniable financial impact on civic life, as the tax policies of where we live and the benefits these taxes create must be factored into financial planning.

The parallels between civics and financial literacy are profound. Like financial literacy, the application of civics is active and dynamic. It evolves based on context, experience, the results of prior choices, and our goals. This may also include the goals of our families, communities, and the rest of the world. And while one of the most prominent aspects of civil life is voting, civics is more than voting – just as financial literacy is more than saving and spending money!


Teaching Civics is Essential to Preserving our Democracy

As a life skill, civics education starts in the home. Children listen to their parents discuss politics amongst themselves and with their friends, and they watch their parents engage in civic life through voting, participating in schools, or donating to charities. The strength of these experiences ranges from children who rarely hear their parents talk about politics to children who can share vivid stories from a young age of participating in rallies and other forms of civic life.

Underlying the expressions of civic life are the values that motivate our behavior and the degree of trust in our civic institutions. Consider, for example, how a family that mistrusts its own government will talk and behave, and how that will influence immediate and future generations.

Research shows we’ve been experiencing declining levels of belief in government, public schools, banks, big business, and media for several decades. Even more concerning is that Americans are losing trust in their fellow citizens:

Just one in three Americans say that they have at least “a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions,” down from 57% in 2007 and 64% in 1997. [1]

It is tempting to think that our youth will somehow improve things, presumably because they have not been negatively influenced by politics yet. Unfortunately, the evidence here suggests the opposite:

“When distrust for major institutions combines with distrust for other citizens, the result is declining support for democracy itself. Young adults are no exception: In January 2017, 35% of Millennials said they were losing faith in American democracy, and just 25% were confident in the democratic system.” [1]

The effects of lived experience, and the increasingly negative impact of social media, demonstrates that we cannot rely on lived experience alone to create the civics education needed to preserve and enhance our democracy.

Therefore, we need to rely on our schools to provide the civics education necessary to restore trust and faith between us and our democratic institutions.


Experiential Learning and Civics Education

Over the years, civics education experts have reached a consensus that an effective civics education framework comprises three main components:

  • Civic knowledge: an understanding of government structure, government processes, and relevant social studies knowledge and concepts
  • Civic skills: abilities that enable students to participate in a democracy as responsible citizens; and
  • Civic dispositions: attitudes important in a democracy such as a sense of civic duty and concern for the welfare of others

Education experts have developed a set of ten practices to guide the development of effective civics curricula (adapted from 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education [2]):

  1. Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography
  2. Discussion of current events and potentially controversial issues
  3. Service learning, i.e., lessons that allow students to apply what they learn to issues that matter to them through community service
  4. Extracurricular activities that further enable students to get involved with schools and communities
  5. Student participation in school governance
  6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures
  7. News media literacy to help students recognize “fake news” and manage their digital media
  8. Action civics focused on students acting as citizens, complementing involvement in extracurricular activities
  9. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to promote healthy interactions
  10. School culture reform to create safe school environments for learning

Some of these practices focus on a single component, such as civic knowledge, while others integrate a few. For example, student participation in school governance integrates all three components: Students must have or develop the desire to serve other students, understand the structure of their student government, and have the skill to navigate that structure to accomplish their goals.


Participatory Budgeting and Civics Education

This is why the soul of FirstRoot’s approach to civics education is Participatory Budgeting, a democratic process in which students collaboratively determine how to invest a budget to improve their school. PB is an experiential learning approach that supports all three civic education components described above through practices that integrate discussions of civics, community service, student participation, action civics, SEL, and school climate reform.

Research on the effectiveness of PB in schools has shown that it increases civic engagement, encouraging students to become involved in the larger community (participating in “civic life”) and voting, even when there is not a formal curriculum driving the use of PB within the school. [3]

Unfortunately, few states have integrated participatory elements into civics education, such as broad involvement in school governance or community engagement. Just over half of states (26, plus Washington, DC) mention simulations of democratic processes or procedures, while 11 states include service learning.[2]  This is especially concerning as civics education is incomplete without students learning what civic participation looks like in practice and how citizens can engage in their communities.


Moving From Civics Education to Civics Impact

Civics education is good, but civics impact is better. However, impact requires money, which makes the power of FirstRoot’s platform is obvious: By putting real money in students’ hands to invest in their schools, PB enables students to create real impact. And it expands dramatically when we leverage technology to promote collaboration.

To illustrate, the most common design for Participatory Budgeting in schools is to have the entire student body collaborate on how to invest their funds to improve the school. This is a natural, single-group choice. After all, a school is a community. Other single-group options might include student groups, such as the student council, band, or an extracurricular club.

As we move online, however, we create opportunities for multiple groups to collaborate, with profound ramifications.

Let’s explore how the impact of $10 scales through collaboration, using the theme of improving school safety, which is aligned with one of the proven practices of civics education.

  • If we give $10 each to 25 students in a single class and ask them to improve school safety with $250, we create a compelling learning experience, but probably not a significant impact.
  • If, however, we give $10 each to 1,000 students, they now have $10,000 at their disposal, and will likely create a meaningful impact toward improving their school’s safety.
  • And if their city has seven high schools, each with $10,000 to spend, these students have $70,000. This will almost certainly support multiple investments, with money, and therefore, impact, flowing to the schools where it’s needed most.
  • Finally, if their state has 2,000+ schools, and gives $10,000 to each school, the students would have more than $20,000,000 to invest in school safety! Although we don’t know what the students would do with $20,000,000, we’re pretty sure the result would be incredible!

The impact we can create through civic engagement is magnified through democratic collaboration. At FirstRoot, we plan to support students in having that impact at every level.



[1]  Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, “The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution” Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, 2017

[2] Michael Hansen, Elizabeth Mann Levesque, Jon Valant, and Diana Quintero, “2018 Brown Center Report on American Education: An inventory of state civics” Brookings Institute, 2018

[3] M. Cohen, D. Schugurensky, A. Wiek, “Citizenship education through participatory budgeting: The case of bioscience high school in Phoenix, Arizona” (2015)  Curriculum and Teaching,  30  (2) , pp. 5-26.