State Lawmakers Urged to Stress Civics

After last September 11, a wave of patriotism washed over the country, inspiring state legislation to promote national pride among U.S. public school students.

But a national legislative task force argues that, so far, the bills really haven't helped students gain a better understanding of our democratic form of government.

They say more is needed specifically, a return of civics to public school curriculums.

The rationale for this is that it will strengthen students' resolve to resist the terrorist assault on American society.

Educators say civics teaching has declined so much that most children and teenagers today have little knowledge of any level of government. More than 75 percent of fourth, eighth and 12th graders are not proficient in civics, according to a 1998 report by the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Advocates of teaching civics say ignorance of the political process is a key reason why only 33 percent of 18 to 24 year old men and women bothered to vote in the last Presidential election. That was a drop of 17 percentage points from 1972, the year Republican incumbent Richard Nixon defeated Democratic challenger George McGovern.

State lawmakers have vowed to require the teaching of civics in public schools. But educators say these efforts are largely symbolic.

"What you see ... is more superficial than substantial," said one Indiana elementary school teacher who asked not to be identified. "Most teachers see the difference between plain old patriotism and understanding what the country is about."

"We truly need more than the flag waving and patriotic fervor that followed September 11 to sustain our democracy," a task force created by the National Conference of State Legislatures said in a recent report. The task force is headed by Democratic state senator Richard T. Moore of Massachusetts and Republican Representative Wesley Marsh of Arizona.

Defining civics can be difficult. In general, it's the study of U.S. government. But everyone has different, often political, ideas about how our democracy is meant to work and how well it is working now.

Conservatives, including former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and former National Endowment for the Humanities chief Lynne Cheney have collaborated on a civics curriculum that includes lessons on US history and government as well as talks on "President Bush's exemplary conduct" after 9/11.

Some civil liberties groups believe the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign is unconstitutional, and say this should be pointed out in any civics course.

There's also the matter of testing. Under pressure from Congress and President Bush, states and school districts are placing greater emphasis on student testing. School officials say this results in more attention on subjects that are tested, especially math and English, and less attention on civics and other subjects that aren't.

Thus, only a few states have taken steps to promote civic education.

The New Hampshire Legislature agreed in May to establish a commission to examine the status of public school civics requirements.

Moore wants deans of teacher's colleges in Massachusetts to incorporate the teaching of civics into their curriculums.

He says state lawmakers have yet to take much action on civics because they've been swamped with budget deficits.

"Just as the war on terrorism is going to take some time, rebuilding the civic education component of the public education system will take some time," Moore told

The NCSL is also urging more legislators to participate in "Back To School Week," a three-year-old program in which state lawmakers visit schools in their districts to talk to students about the legislative process.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 lawmakers participated during the last two years. NCSL's Karl Kurtz says he hopes more will turn out in 2002. But with less than three weeks to go, the number of lawmakers who have pledged to participate is less than 3,000.


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