Bipartisan Bill Pushes for Civics Education Update

Senator Lois Court Civics Act of 2021 seeks to address a crisis in trust and understanding of American government

As concerns rise nationwide over the state of American understanding of democracy and its governance, Colorado may soon join the growing number of states reemphasizing civics education in K-12 schools with the proposed Senator Lois Court Civics Act of 2021, approved by the state Senate last week.

SB21-067, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Montrose Republican Don Coram and Denver Democrat Chris Hansen, would require the state Department of Education to include in revised academic standards attention to the “history, culture, and social contributions” of ethnic, racial and religious minority groups. Coram and Hansen also propose to mandate that K–12 schools teach about the three branches of government and their interactions, assure “an understanding of how laws are enacted at the federal, state, and local government levels,” and inform students about “the methods by which citizens shape and influence government and governmental actions.”

“Schools and school districts must be encouraged to review and reinvigorate their civics education curricula,” the bill says. “Civics education must include not only classroom instruction and discussion of the fundamentals of American democracy at the federal, state, and local government levels, but it must also include classroom activities through which students model democratic processes and engage in service learning and experiential project-based learning by participating civically in their communities.”

Other directives to CDE include requiring new standards address the functions, history and significance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. and state constitutions and “how to engage with federal, state, and local governments and … public officials.”

Coram said he thinks the measure is essential to correct growing and widespread adult civic illiteracy. “If you look around at what is happening around our state and in our nation, there seems to be a complete misunderstanding of the role of government,” Coram said. “To change the course through the children is probably the fastest way to educate the general public.”

THE GOAL: A CIVIL SOCIETY

Local lawyers with whom Law Week spoke said the bill addresses a growing crisis in the country: decaying political cohesion and confidence in government and the institutions that assure a society built on law. Chris Murray, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Denver, said that, in his view, civics education has been neglected for decades. While SB 21-067’s goals “used to be pretty basic” to public education, he argued, they have lately seemed to fade away. “We really are to the point where Schoolhouse Rock isn’t something that everyone can get anymore,” he said, adding that, although the bill is “aspirational,” it’s “like a drop of water to a man in the desert. It’s still a drop of water.”

Murray said one feature of the bill that could be especially helpful to the next generation is its encouragement of open discussion in the classroom. American society “is dying from an inability to speak about controversial subjects charitably with each other and in an informed manner,” he said, and kids need to hear more viewpoints, not less, with which they disagree or that make them uncomfortable. “If we’re going to live in a pluralistic society, if we’re going to work out our disagreements with a democratic process, we have to be able to talk to each other,” Murray said. “More importantly, we have to be able to listen to each other.”

In that sense, the bill advances a social goal that, to Davis Graham & Stubbs partner and former Department of Justice official Mark Champoux, is “absolutely critical.” “In a democracy that’s based on the rule of law, it’s important that people understand how they can productively contribute to civil society and how they can participate in government,” he said. “In a democratic society, there’s a shared set of values that enable us to not just exist together but to be a successful town, state, country.”

Champoux argued that a commitment to pluralism, free expression and the “rule of law” cannot be kept without a focus on civics education. Nor can the refreshing of the mechanism of government needed to continually assure that constitutional promises are kept. “It’s certainly true that not all of our institutions are perfect, but you have to understand what they are and why they’re there before you can, in a helpful and productive way, work on fixing them or improving them” Champoux said.

John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney and longtime federal prosecutor who is now a partner at WilmerHale, pointed to the benefit to the government itself when Americans are well educated in matters of  citizenship.  He said that, absent widespread civic awareness,  the American government is likely to experience difficulty in fulfilling its promise to be representative.

“The controversies over civic education have been there from the very beginning of the American republic,” he said. “You have to be willing to let young people know, ‘hey, this is an ongoing conversation.’ People disagree. That’s something that’s important for voters and for citizens to know. The most important message they can be given is that we have a system of government that, at its best, empowers citizens to be an active part of our government and really relies on citizens to be an active part of our government.”

THE STATUS QUO IN COLORADO

As of 2018, according to an American Federation of Teachers study, most states did demand some civics teaching, though the overwhelming majority of those who do so require only one semester of instruction and nine states had no requirement at all. However, most states do not require adolescents to demonstrate their mastery of civics in order to advance out of middle school or to receive a high school diploma. As of 2018, 16 states ask students to pass a civics competency exam.

Although Republican legislators have in the past urged the establishment of a civics test mandate for Colorado — a 2016 bill to require Colorado teenagers to earn a passing score on such an exam as a condition of high school graduation died in the Senate that year — Colorado has not done so.

School districts in the Centennial State can mandate passage of a civics competency exam, said Floyd Cobb, executive director of CDE’s Teaching and Learning Unit, but, at least in Colorado, “we typically don’t have competency exams from a state level.” Colorado does currently require all high school graduates to have completed one high school government course, Cobb said. “Civics is actually the only course that is required for high school graduation.”

Despite the requirement for graduation, the implementation of active learning opportunities in Front Range public schools, which would be in line with the bill’s mandate, appears to be, at best, inconsistent. James Stephenson, a Denver Public Schools high school teacher, said that he and colleagues at Thomas Jefferson High School “like to have the kids collaborate and work together,” especially by acting out civic roles, he said. “Kids really enjoy that.”

While DPS requires Advanced Placement students to undertake a civics project, there is no district-wide expectation for active learning in the social studies classroom. Stephenson said the methods for teaching civics and government are wholly based on an individual teacher’s and a school’s preference.

In the more affluent Boulder Valley School District, the situation looks similar. Only limited opportunities for students to engage in active learning, such as debating issues, are made available. Kyle Addington, the district’s director of curriculum and standards, highlighted BVSD’s work to launch a “Democracy Day” activity for students. “That is a more applicable implementation of civic engagement, where students participate in debate and take up actual issues facing local government and have those discussions,” he said, noting that the district primarily focuses on the state content standards, as opposed to recommended teaching methods, as its “north star.”

The content standards do not address how students should be taught. “When it comes to teaching methods specifically, that’s a level below what the state standards do,” Cobb said. “The state standards really focus on broad understandings and not specific delivery methods. Those are reserved for local school boards and schools themselves.” Instead, social studies standards aim to build student knowledge and skills relating to civics, as well as economics, geography and history. The current set, adopted in 2018, are being first used in the state’s classrooms this year. They must be revised this year as a result of earlier General Assembly action and, while the Coram-Hansen bill would put pressure on CDE to ask more of teachers and students as the agency undertakes the revision, Cobb does not believe that the mandate in SB21-067 would complicate the process. “I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that that’s the case,” he said.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, on the other hand, is concerned that the bill seeks to solve a problem that does not exist and needlessly adds to CDE’s workload. “I am a social studies teacher,” she said. “I can tell you unequivocally that the standards they are proposing already exist. They are already there.” “I think the standards are already in the exact place they need to be, which is in the purview of the state Board of Education,” she continued. “While I commend the sponsors for raising this issue, I just don’t believe we should be putting the standards in our state statutes.” Zenzinger said.

Zenzinger conceded that the public is likely confused about how the government works and about the merits of the American constitutional design. Nevertheless, she said, “I don’t think you can then draw the conclusion that it’s because these things are not being taught in school, because they are.” She opined that the more likely explanation of the state of civics knowledge is a human tendency to forget. “I learned algebra in school, but I probably couldn’t do the quadratic formula anymore,” she said. “I don’t remember how.” She continued that the state legislature should not expect to “make sure that everybody knows, one thousand percent, these standards for all eternity.”

FEDERAL RESPONSE

Congress, too, is showing signs that it may take up the question of how best to encourage and improve civics and history education. The leading proposal, sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and John Cornyn, R-Tex., would have Washington invest $1 billion per year in the project.

The bipartisan team’s Educating for Democracy Act would “would create a variety of grants to states, nonprofits, institutions of higher education, and civics education researchers to support and expand access to civics and history education in schools across the country,” according to a press release from Coons’ office.

Another bill filed in the House of Representatives by Democrat Alcee Hastings of Florida takes a similar tack, proposing to provide grant funding to increase access to civics education.

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