A law that mandates that New Jersey public schools teach civics to middle school students bears the name of Laura Wooten, of Mercer County, the longest-serving poll worker in the United States.
Beginning with the 2022-23 school year, New Jersey will join most states in requiring middle-school students to learn about civics.
Lawmakers want to engage students at a younger age to teach them about the government and their roles as citizens. New Jersey was among 10 states without such a requirement for middle-school students. Pennsylvania has mandated it since the 2020-21 school year.
”We all got a wake-up call on Jan. 6,” said State Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D., Mercer), one of the primary sponsors of the bill, referring to the assault on Capitol Police by rioters. “People realized we have to do a better job educating our future generations."
Under the law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in July, students in grades six to eight must take at least one course in civics or U.S. government as part of a social studies graduation requirement.
“It’s very important at that age so that when they’re old enough to vote that they have that basic understanding about civics,” said Josh Borrelli, a seventh-grade teacher at Camden’s Promise Charter School. “You’re never too young to have a voice.”
Collingswood High School history teacher Eric Fieldman said he likes the new mandate and wants to see history and civics taught with a more inclusive perspective. Making the subject relevant to current events makes it easier for students to grasp, he said.
“The first thing students ask is: ‘Why are we studying about dead old white guys?’” Fieldman said. “This is a teachable moment.”
The New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers will help prepare the civics curriculum guidelines and offer professional development for teachers to integrate civics, economics, and the history of New Jersey into courses.
A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that roughly half of Americans can name the three branches of government — legislative, judicial, and executive — up from only 39% the previous year.
“It is a sad reality that a large percentage of our country does not understand how their own government works,” another bill sponsor, State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D., Mercer), said in a statement. “Everything that has happened since the presidential election last fall has shown us that this lack of understanding is a threat to our democracy.”
Turner first proposed the civics mandate in 2018, but the bill stalled in the Legislature. The bill picked up steam after the Capitol attack and won bipartisan support this spring and unanimously cleared both houses.
The New Jersey Education Association, which opposed adding civics as a stand-alone curriculum requirement, changed its stance after the state Department of Education made changes to allow for time in the school day for the course.
The law is named for the late Laura Wooten, of Mercer County, who holds the record as the longest-serving poll worker in the country, 79 years. She began volunteering in 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, said her daughter Yvonne Hill.
”She was nonpartisan. She didn’t care what party you belonged to,” said Hill, 74, of Sanibel, Fla. “She just thought you should vote.”
Hill, a business consultant, said her mother almost missed working the polls in 2017, when her 90-year-old brother died the day before Election Day. At the last minute, she decided to volunteer, walking to the polls at 4 a.m. She was 96.
“She saw that as part of doing her civic duty,” her daughter said.
Hill said her mother, who died in 2019, was surprised by the esteem she received for her longevity. She believes her mother, who especially wanted young people to get more active in civics, would have been pleased about the law in her honor. The family plans to establish the Laura Wooten Institute for Civic Engagement to continue her legacy.
”She was steadfast and determined to contribute to the voting process,” Hill said. “I know she would have been honored.”