After waiting two hours for her chance to speak, high school student Samantha Oliver chimed in to the Delaware House Education Committee hearing last week with a succinct message: Young people should be active participants in our democracy.
“It is a necessity that we, the next generation, learn how to use our voices for good, for change, effectively and earnestly,” said Oliver, a junior at the Sussex Academy of Arts, on the Zoom call. “We will be the ones to lead the charge of our country for the years to come.”
She was speaking in favor of a measure that would give sixth- through 12th-grade students one excused absence per year from school to participate in a civic activity such as attending a rally or visiting the state Capitol. If the bill passes, Delaware will become the only state in the country to offer this opportunity to students.
“Young people who are involved in their communities oftentimes turn into adults who are engaged in their communities,” Democratic state Rep. Eric Morrison, the bill’s sponsor, told Stateline. “This encourages people to learn at a young age how to get involved in the right ways.”
The deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January and the continuing misinformation about the presidential election have left many Americans deeply worried about the state of their democracy. Some legislators on both sides of the aisle say the extreme political divisions spring in part from a fundamental lack of understanding about the country’s history and how its government works.
At the same time, many Republican elected officials have supported former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
While lawmakers and educators often deeply disagree about the best approach, especially when it comes to teaching about slavery and institutional racism, many see civics education as key to starting to knit the country back together.
Lawmakers in at least 34 states debated 88 bills this session that seek to bolster civics education for public school students. Measures range from mandating civics education for middle and high school students to incentivizing civics activities outside the classroom.
“We need to get kids more involved in their local government and understand that it affects them,” said Indiana state Rep. Tony Cook, a Republican who introduced bipartisan legislation this year that requires a civics course in middle and high schools. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law in April.
“The time is now,” Cook said. “It’s been overdue.”
It’s a fragile time in our democracy, said Shawn Healy, senior director of state policy and advocacy at iCivics, a Massachusetts-based education nonprofit that released a roadmap earlier this year outlining how states, local school districts and educators can reinvigorate civics and history education around the country.
“Things are not going well in our democracy and civics education can help heal some of these divides,” Healy said. “It can empower people to help understand how to enact change in our democracy. It’s the very nature of our system. It’s the people who govern.”
Civics education, advocates say, should not be limited to elementary school students voting on their favorite ice cream while their parents vote in the presidential election, middle schoolers watching “Schoolhouse Rock,” or high schoolers taking an elective class. It should be integrated into and promoted in curricula throughout primary education.
The push for civics education predates even the 2020 presidential election and its fallout. Trust in government has dramatically decreased over the past half-century, with only 24% of U.S. adults saying they trust Washington to do what is right always or most of the time, and political polarization increasing substantially.
At the same time, the United States disinvested in civics education and poured money into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework. The U.S., in fact, spends a thousand times more per student on STEM education than on history and civics, according to the Center for Civic Literacy at Indiana University.
The lack of investment shows: A quarter of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, according to a 2020 national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Too often, Cook said, his Indianapolis office will receive calls from frustrated constituents asking him to fix Washington, D.C., when his jurisdiction stops at Indiana’s borders. Americans, he said, have lost sight of how their government works.
Laura Hammack has witnessed how civics education can fundamentally change a community.
As the superintendent for Brown County Schools, a rural district of 1,600 students in southern Indiana, she has fought the perception among residents of larger cities that her community is backward thinking. When she discovered the Center for Civic Education’s We the People educational program and competition, where middle school students are judged on their understanding of constitutional principles, she signed her district up.
Middle schoolers in her district have won the state championship five times in recent years and won the national championship twice, bolstered by families in the area coming together to pay for their flights, buses and new suits for competitions. It galvanized the community, Hammack said.
When the state legislature called for a task force on civics last year, Republican Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch tapped Hammack to serve on it. The new law that requires civics education for middle schoolers came out of those discussions.
“What it does is provides the background information that a lot of citizens don’t know,” she said. With civics instruction, students can gain “that understanding of what went into the development of this incredible nation and an appreciation of what is fragile in this democracy,” she said.
Nationwide, lawmakers are considering a wide variety of measures. A bill the Oregon Senate approved in April would require high school students to receive at least a half-credit of civics instruction.
In New Jersey, the state Senate passed a measure that would require civics coursework in middle school. Meanwhile, both houses of the Florida legislature passed a bill that would offer school districts a civics literacy project. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled his support.
“Civic education can be a win for everybody,” said Derek Summerville, the YMCA’s national director of youth engagement. “We can all agree that we don’t want to see buildings burning or riots in the Capitol. We have to have a better civic fabric that holds our country together.”
The YMCA has been involved in nonpartisan civics education since 1936. Over 55,000 students in 42 states and the District of Columbia participate in its model government program, Youth and Government.
Many of those students have implored their states to pass legislation that bolsters civics education, including Solomon Scholl, a first-year student at Williams College and former Florida high schooler who advocated for the Sunshine State’s civics bill.
“Students are learning to look outward, learning about their communities, learning about their own passions and making their voices heard,” said Scholl, who previously served as Florida’s youth governor for the YMCA’s Youth and Government program. “It’s a different set of skills that are absolutely necessary in making engaged citizens and leaders.”
Many young people are dissatisfied with the limited civics coursework they receive.
“Our generation is so strong and so proactive,” said Sophia Koppensteiner, a junior at Greenwood High School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a youth governor for the state’s YMCA. “But we need the guidance. Without a support system, there’s no way we can truly achieve our potential.”
What about a test?
Some states also are moving to require students to pass the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service civics test required for naturalization. The 128 questions range from the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices to why the United States entered World War II.
In New Hampshire this year, Republican state Rep. Michael Moffett introduced two bills that would require both high school and college students to pass the test with 70% correct answers in order to graduate. Around half of states have similar requirements.
Moffett, who taught civics and history in community colleges and military schools, said there are far too many students who lack specific, core knowledge of how the U.S. government works.
“To have this basic foundation and fundamentals is just an important part of the solution,” he said.
The bill that would require the test for high schoolers has passed both chambers of the state legislature, while the bill that would require the test for college students passed the state House in April by a single vote.
Most Democrats opposed the measures, worried the test is not an effective tool for bolstering civic knowledge.
Using the naturalization test as a benchmark for civics education is flawed and shortsighted, said Khalilah Harris, acting vice president of K-12 education at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank. The organization has released two reports in recent years outlining the gaps in U.S. civics education.
Students of different backgrounds and economic levels have uneven educational experiences, she said, and the test could disproportionately hurt low-income communities or communities of color by risking students’ graduation.
“Adding another required graduation assessment does not address the needs of the district to have adequate resources, funding or exposure to things like a trip to the Liberty Bell,” Harris said.
Moffett doesn’t buy these arguments. The answers to these tests are online and open to any student, he said. Plus, he added, if states require driving tests or nursing registries, they can assess students too.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation in April that would have required high school students to pass the citizenship test, calling it legislative overreach of the state’s curriculum.
Harris said other measures would more effectively involve students in civic life: States could allow 16-year-olds to vote in local municipal elections. School boards could give students full voting rights on issues that affect them. States also could implement automatic voter registration, which would add young people to voter rolls when they get their driver’s license.
Worries about biases, mixed messages
Some conservatives worry investments in civics education will open the doors to teaching critical race theory, an academic field that examines racism in systems.
While civics courses are good in theory, curriculum mandates can be hijacked by people with “woke” biases, wrote Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a D.C.-based conservative think tank, in an email.
“Through a combination of teacher bias, peer pressure, and the work of the politically biased nonprofits that work with schools on this issue, students often get pushed into political action that they may not fully embrace or understand,” he wrote.
Several Republican-controlled states, including Idaho, Iowa and Tennessee, have enacted measures this session that would ban materials that discuss the racist roots of America’s founding, including the “1619 Project” by The New York Times.
On the federal level, a bipartisan bill would invest $1 billion a year for six years in civics and history education, with money heading to states for education programs, to nonprofits for civics programs for underserved communities and to higher education programs for training educators. It would be up to school districts and schools to craft the curricula.
But many conservatives oppose the bill because they think it would be used to push critical race theory. One right-leaning group, the National Association of Scholars, urged Republican lead sponsors Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole to withdraw their support. They have refused.
Healy, of iCivics, said the argument that civics education could lead to un-American indoctrination is a dangerous distraction, meant to stir up the culture war debate. “It’s pure gaslighting,” he said.
Still, the concerns have spilled into state legislative debates over civics education. Some legislators worry that teenagers aren’t mature enough to benefit from more opportunities to engage with the government.
After the public comment concluded for the Delaware bill that would give students an excused absence for a civic-related activity, Republican state Rep. Richard Collins criticized the bill.
“Our kids, they go to school to learn,” he said, exasperated. “It really does bother me. They need to learn before they become activists, so they have informed opinions. …
“I’m sorry, I just cannot support this bill.”
As he finished, the committee chair, Democratic state Rep. Kimberly Williams, cut in.
“Learning comes in all different ways,” she said. “It’s not just sitting behind a desk.”
This article available through Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.