Super Tuesday Is For Kids, Too: Newsela Opens Voting To Students

Among the thousands of Americans who will cast ballots in the slew of presidential primary elections tomorrow, a significant number know that their votes won’t ever be counted by state officials. They know they’re powerless to help their favorite candidates win. Yet people are still urging them to go to the polls on Super Tuesday, hoping the experience will thrill this group of Americans and inspire them to become dedicated voters when the time is right.

In school polls hosted by the edtech company Newsela with support from teachers, thousands of American children as young as eight or nine will be making their picks between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, or from among the Republican contenders Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump. Newsela will post the student vote tallies Tuesday night as the real election results come in.

From the start of the primary season, New York-based Newsela has been encouraging teachers to get kids involved in the presidential election through classroom reading assignments, discussions—and the chance to give voice to their generation’s political views in the online polls the company has set up for each state.

“As far as I know, no one’s ever tried to run a national election for school kids before,” Newsela marketing director Alex Wu says. “We should get them voting as soon as possible.” The company is coordinating with Rock The Vote, which aims to get young Americans to register as voters as soon as they become eligible at age 18.

Wu says Newsela’s unofficial election platform, Students Vote 2016, is a natural extension of the company’s core mission—promoting literacy through non-fiction reading. Newsela provides teachers and individual students with a selection of news stories from partners such as the Washington Post and the Associated Press. The stories appear both in their original form and in versions adapted for kids at four lower levels of reading ability. The Newsela site also offers a set of election articles in Spanish, under the Newsela Espanol feature added by the company last year.

“We’re a news site for kids, so of course we were going to be covering the election,” Wu says. About 30 percent of the teachers who use Newsela in their classrooms teach social studies, and the company’s bank of accessible articles makes it easier for them to help students grasp what’s going on in the presidential race, he says. “They can actually follow it,” Wu says.

There’s no charge to teachers and students for reading the stories. Newsela’s revenues come from the sale of a Pro version of the service to schools and school districts, which receive enhanced data features such as progress reports. The company charges $4,000 to $7,000 per school, per school year.

Newsela was founded in June 2013 by two Teach For America veterans and friends who had become troubled by student literacy gaps as they later worked on educational policy for government agencies and non-profits. CEO Matthew Gross and his co-founder, Newsela chief product officer Dan Cogan-Drew, attracted a good part of their early funding from Bay Area edtech investors, including San Francisco-based Owl Ventures and the non-profit New Schools Venture Fund in Oakland, CA.

Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led a $15 million Series B round for the company late last year, and one of the VC firm’s founding partners, Brook Byers, took a seat on Newsela’s board. Investors in the round included Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, the Women’s Venture Capital Fund, and existing investors The Knight Foundation and Owl Ventures. Newsela has opened an office in Palo Alto, CA.

As it markets its products to school administrators, the company points to its alignment with new Common Core standards that call for an increase in non-fiction reading.

In some schools where students have limited access to school computers or personal devices, teachers simply print out the Newsela articles without enrolling their students in company accounts, Wu says.

The chance to make the mock election a learning activity may spur teachers to enroll more students, who can then cast their votes for a presidential candidate, Wu says.

“The more students get engaged, the more reason they have to read more,” Wu says. “It’s going to be great for us.”

Newsela has reported student poll results from the four primaries held to date, starting with the Iowa caucuses early this month. The kids’ favorite candidates can vary quite a bit from the winners picked by their elders. For example, in both Iowa and Nevada, their top-ranked Democrat was Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. Seeing Newsela’s bar charts and stats, it’s tempting to draw conclusions about the future political landscape after these upcoming generations have joined the electorate.

But Wu is the first to urge caution observers about forming any political prognostications from the student … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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