New call for comprehensive civics projects in schools

New call for comprehensive civics projects in schools

(Mass.) Beginning in middle school, children in Massachusetts will be required to participate in a student-led civics project under a bill signed this month by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Part of the aim is to give early awareness of how government works, but the bill also provides funding to aid underserved communities in implementing history and civics education state requirements. Additionally, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Secretary of State will form a non-partisan high school voter challenge program for eligible students to register or pre-register to vote. 

“Civics education is critically important for the future of our Commonwealth, our nation and our democracy,” Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said in a statement. “Many people, especially young people, are no longer content to sit on the sidelines while their futures are decided by others. Comprehensive civics education will equip our students with the tools they need to become the informed, active citizens our forefathers imagined when they created our systems of government.”

The 2018 midterm elections saw an estimated 31 percent of voters between ages 18 and 29 cast ballots–a significant increase in turnout rates from the past quarter century–according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And a network of over 20 youth-led organizations across the country encouraging students to walk out of their classes and walk to the polls to vote earlier this month. Thousands of students in high school and college across the country did so on Election Day.

Efforts to resuscitate civics education in the classroom has also gained popularity among state lawmakers in recent years, as studies began to show a lack of foundational knowledge among adults and high school students of things like the Declaration of Independence.

Results of a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll, for instance, show that about 70 percent of adults were unable to even name all three branches of government, and approximately that same amount also believed that a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could be appealed. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of participants said that the president has the power to declare war.

Arizona became the first state to pass the Civics Education Initiative in 2015 by requiring high school students to pass a civics test to graduate, with questions drawn from the same test immigrants to the country must pass for naturalization. Now, about 10 states including Pennsylvania, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wisconsin require students to pass a civics exam before earning their diploma.

Though the new law in Massachusetts doesn’t require students to pass a citizenship test, it does call for districts to help eighth-graders complete at least one student-led civics project, either individually, or with a small group or as a class.

The projects must be designed to promote students abilities to analyze of complex issues, consider different perspectives, employ logical reasoning with supportive evidence, engage in civil discourse, and understand the connections between federal, state and local policies, including those that may impact their school or community.

Additionally, the bill creates the Civics Project Trust Fund, which will help districts in undeserved communities better implement the state’s history and civics education requirements. The total amount will depend on appropriations from the Legislature, among other revenue sources, such as grants and donations from public or private entities.

Advocates for civics education said the new law couldn’t have come at a better time, as more students in Massachusetts want to participate in their government than ever before.

“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,” said Arielle Jennings, who co-leads the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition—a collaboration of twenty civics education organizations, research institutions, school districts and other stakeholders. “In order to prepare them, this law ensures they have real-world civic education opportunities that teach them not only the knowledge but the skills necessary to participate in our democracy.”

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