Hallelujah! The governor of Massachusetts signed a bill into law that encourages civics education in public schools. Acting just two days after the mid-term elections, he was able to get bi-partisan support, though I would argue that Democrats want civics education for different reasons than Republicans. Let’s hope that the push for a re-birth of civics education continues in all of the states.
Among other things, the law requires eighth-graders to complete at least one student-led civics project and it establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund, which schools can use for teacher training, curriculum development and to partner with institutions of higher education on projects related to civics. It also creates a nonpartisan high school voter challenge program to raise awareness for eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.
“I’m proud to see this important civics education bill signed into law,” Massachusetts state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat who heads the Joint Committee on Education, said during the signing. “In light of recent reports of voter suppression and the perilous state of our country’s civic and political life today, this legislation is especially critical.”
While Democrats blame voter suppression among the reasons they lose elections, it’s been clear for years that a large part of the American public is really ignorant about some fairly basic facts about our government and how it works. We’ve all seen those man-in-the-street pop quiz interviews and been amazed that many people can’t even name the branches of government or the name of the vice-president.
I have stood on this soapbox for years. I remember being so put-off by the fact that my son’s AP American History teacher used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a supplemental textbook in high school. The book was written in 1980 by the historian and social activist and went on to be a runner-up for a National Book Award. To me, it is the liberal re-writing of American history full of politically correct grievances and popular with the blame-America-first crowd.
The current epidemic of sore-losers sweeping the South seems to me to be a symptom of a lack of civics education. Voter suppression is the favored trope. Some losing candidates are trying very hard to create doubt in the electoral system and blame local officials for suppressing votes. In the case of the Georgia mid-term election for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams claimed that cleaning up the voter rolls mandated by state law was denying people the ability to vote. Her non-concession speech was truly a low point in politics. Instead of serving her state in a positive way, she bitterly refused to accept the legitimacy of the Republican winner and now her state’s economy may suffer. Boycotts of Georgia are being called for in Hollywood, for example, which could stifle the booming economic success of the filming industry in that state.
Students can learn from watching election results that every vote matters and lots of elections were decided by slim margins. Most importantly, they can learn about the process. Recounts, ballot integrity, provisional votes, and how all the pieces of an election matter and fit into place have to be taught. In Texas, the only true swing congressional district now has an official winner. Republican incumbent Rep. Will Hurd won a third term to represent CD-23. He ran against Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who only now has conceded the election. In this race, 689 provisional votes were the final determining factor.
The state’s only true swing congressional district, with a nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, stretches from El Paso to San Antonio and is more than 70 percent Hispanic.
Hurd, an African-American, surprised many when he was first elected in 2014. He’ll be the first person in more than two decades to hold the office for three consecutive terms.
Hurd, who declared victory the day after the election, even as Jones contended that the 689 votes that separated them made the race too close to call, again asserted his win Friday after a majority of the provisional ballots had been counted in the district saying the people of “the 23rd Congressional District of Texas made their voices heard and clearly chose Will Hurd.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos agrees that civics education is important – as important as the subjects most focused on today. While science, math, and reading are essential, so is American government and history.
Fewer than 1 in 3 schools offer stand-alone civics courses, according to a survey published earlier this year by Education Week Research Center. The survey was given to 524 principals across the country, more than half of whom said their schools are devoting “too little” time to civics education.
“It hasn’t been a focus,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in September during a speech to high school students at the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan museum. “We’ve been focusing a lot on math, science and reading, which are all, of course, very important subjects. But I think it’s really important that students learn about the history of this nation that they are here to actually protect and enhance from this day forward.”
So far, 16 states have enacted legislation or are considering legislation to require civics education in public schools. That’s a good start. It seems only sensible, too, given the fact that most public high schools conduct voter registration drives for seniors who have reached the voting age requirement. Participation percentages were up this last cycle. Each election in recent years has predicted increased voter participation by the youngest voters and this last mid-term election did see a rise. Some may credit it to events like the mass shooting at Parkland High School and the nationwide tour of young activists who held voter registration drives, paid for by liberal anti-gun organizations and celebrities.
“This newly enacted law could not have come at a better time,” Arielle Jennings, Massachusetts executive director of Generation Citizen and co-leader of the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition, says of the Massachusetts legislation. “We are in a moment in our country when young people are seeing the power of their voices and are eager to participate in the civic process.”
That turned out to be especially true this midterm election, as an estimated 31 percent of voters aged 18-29 cast a vote – a figure polling experts at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University called “an extraordinary increase” over turnout in 2014, when just 21 percent of eligible young voters went to the polls. In fact, researchers at Tufts estimate that the turnout among young voters is the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter century, or at least the last seven midterm elections.
As I said, it’s a start. Let’s hope that standards are tightened in all 50 states and a more uniform, basic set of requirements are formed to produce a more well-rounded graduating student population.