Civics Class: Is This the Time for a Resurrection?

tt43.jpgSometimes a simple test of basic knowledge gives a person insight into whether they know something that most of us would consider obvious or fundamental. If you have a high school student (or older) at home, ask your child if they know who is the vice president of the United States. Then ask them to name at least ONE of the two U.S. senators from New Jersey. Finally, ask them who their state representative is. If they answered all correctly, fabulous. One or two correct answers is a positive sign … but if your child failed completely, well then, a civics lesson just might be in order. Indeed, as a parent, you might consider taking the same test. I won't ask how you did though.

As an elected legislator, I naturally believe in representative democracy. I am, however, frustrated at the lack of civic awareness and political participation in our society today. This frustration is compounded by the lack of participation by younger voters who will form the foundation of our electorate in years to come. Take for instance that only 36 percent of registered voters turned out to vote in last year’s midterm elections (an all-time low). Additionally, turnout in 2013 with Gov. Chris Christie on the ballot was the lowest ever for a gubernatorial general election at 39 percent. Exacerbating the problem is that the turnout percentage from voters ages 18 to 24 was even lower in both elections.

I recently introduced legislation designed to correct these trends by raising awareness of the role that civics plays in the minds of our young people as they move onto becoming voting members of our society. Research has shown that one of the ways that states can influence political engagement is by requiring civic education in their curriculum. Substantial evidence shows that high-quality civic education boosts students’ interest in politics, their knowledge of political issues and voter turnout after they turn 18.

My proposal allows a school district to petition the Department of Education to make this a requirement for graduation. Under current New Jersey law, school boards can "establish standards for graduation from its secondary school". My proposal would ensure that one of those requirements is basic civics knowledge.

The proposal calls for school districts to require that aspiring high school graduates achieve the same minimum score (6/10) as potential United States citizens must achieve on the same test administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

I recognize that some will argue that this idea is another expansion of standardized testing that has seemingly become the norm in today's educational environment. I must admit I am torn on that point as well. Additionally, the argument that this test simply measures rote learning, as opposed to helping our young folks debate issues in a respectful manner and understand the important role they play in our democracy, is one that school districts must guard against.

However, in my opinion the requirement of a test places a greater emphasis on civics that is critically important for the sustainability and inclusion of all citizens in our democracy. According to a 2012 report published by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, eight other states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia) have civics assessments in the same manner that I am proposing. Frankly, this test measures a basic understanding of our country's civic foundation that should be easily achieved. You can try for yourself at: http://civicseducationinitiative.com/take-the-test/

So, why is this important?

A September 2014 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that our's country's comprehension and understanding of basic United States civics was woeful. Our government works best when we have a citizenry that understands its responsibility in our democracy. It's hard to imagine all of us being fully engaged in our democracy, when so many of us do not understand the fundamental tenets of that responsibility. That's my take. What's yours?


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