This Is U.S.: The Push for Civic Education

February 20, 2019 | Texas

By Maggie Stern

Last month, Rep. Trent Ashby (R-57) filed a bill that would require high school students to pass the test given to immigrants applying for citizenship in order to graduate. HB 1244 would quiz prospective graduates on U.S. history, founding documents, and the American political system. He filed a similar bill last session, but it died in committee after passing in the House.


Rep. Ashby is worried by surveys like the one given by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2017 that found, for example, that three-quarters of US residents can’t name all three branches of government. In Texas, the problem is even worse. Texas ranked 47th in voter turnout compared to other states in 2016 and had lower rates of all forms of political participation, including signing petitions and contacting politicians. Participation rates remain lowest among youth, people from low-income communities, and communities of color. Communities where more people vote, volunteer, and advocate for change tend to fare better overall, with higher employment rates, improved health outcomes, and governments that respond more consistently to their needs.


Rep. Ashby’s proposal to link the citizenship exam with high school graduation has become a popular way to measure whether schools are teaching students the skills they need to be active citizens. Seventeen states have passed the requirement, and lawmakers in Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota are all considering similar bills this session.


But civic education advocates say that graduation requirements can exacerbate inequities faced by people from low-income communities and communities of color when it comes to civic education and engagement opportunities. Groups like Generation Citizen propose more comprehensive reforms that teach civics through community-based projects and focus on low-income students and students of color.


Recognizing the limitations of standardized testing, states are trying other ways to improve civic education. Tennessee and California have introduced civics assessments where students propose solutions for issues they face in their school or community. Massachusetts requires students to complete two civics projects before they graduate high school, with funding from a public-private partnership that targets underserved schools. These programs follow the recommendations for effective civic education outlined by Generation Citizen in a 2018 report, including allowing students to debate controversial current issues, promoting student leadership in schools, and integrating hands-on learning across all subjects.


Beyond the classroom, states nationwide are implementing innovative solutions to encourage civic participation. New Hampshire recently swore in its first “Kid Governor” – a fifth grader who ran her campaign on a platform to end cruelty against animals and was elected by over 450 kid voters statewide. With the support of the legislature, Hawaii released its first civic engagement app to digitize its legislative resource guide and allow residents to contact officials, register to vote, and track proposed legislation through their phones. In Massachusetts, student advocates are rallying support behind a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, arguing that civic engagement is a habit built by early practice. Kentucky State Senator Reginald Thomas has proposed a similar amendment to the state constitution.


The growing interest in civic education has prompted states across the country to act to expand access to education and engagement opportunities. As the calls for civic education continue, Texas should learn from successful, evidence-based programs that guarantee all children the right to a comprehensive and equitable civic education.