(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
In response to several trends, including low voter turnout and civic knowledge, the past few years have seen a sporadic push for stronger civics education in New York and beyond.
In the spring of 2018, New York City launched a ”Civics For All” Initiative, which “provides resources, programming, and professional learning to all NYC schools. The initiative focuses on education models that are interactive, project-based, and relevant to students’ lives,” according to the Department of Education.
That same year, the New York State Education Department created the Civics Readiness Task Force, composed of 33 members from across the state, in an effort to determine how best to include civics education in school curriculum. According to the task force website, one goal is for students to “demonstrat[e] mastery in civics knowledge and participation in the civics process.” The task force came up with three recommendations, unveiled last month, including to come to a definition for civic readiness.
Meanwhile in Rhode Island students are suing the state board of education for denying them sufficient civics education. The lawyer representing the students said that they have the “constitutional rights to a robust civics education” and that Rhode Island is “failing its students by not instructing them in the values needed to participate in a democratic society,” as reported by the Providence Journal.
New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a bill (S3951) about a year ago, in February 2019, that would establish a civic education fund, money from which would be used by localities to contract with “community-based organizations, non-profits and other non-traditional organizations to implement civic education projects including, but not limited to, mock trials, debate forums, voter registration activities, and projects that demonstrate an understanding of the connections between federal, state and local politics including issues that may impact the students’ community.”
The bill subsequently passed both the Senate and the Assembly, where its lead sponsor is Democratic Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn, before it was vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 13.
Cuomo’s veto memo explained that because it has a financial component it should be included in the state budget -- the bill had no specification for its fiscal implications, only saying they are “to be determined.” The bill was set to go into effect immediately upon its adoption.
“There is a civic education movement brewing across the country. In response to the recent political divide, rhetoric and lack of civic participation, educators, academics, community institutions, non-profits, and local governments, have banned together to implement civic education for students using a simulation-based approach,” the justification text of the bill reads.
DeNora Getachew, who heads the New York City branch of nonprofit Generation Citizen, which leads civic education programming in schools across the country, says that ensuring young people have the foundation and the skills to become informed voters is essential.
“We don’t put drivers on the street without making them take driver’s ed and actually passing a test, right? Why are we treating this any different?” Gretachew said.
Simon said that she, Montgomery, and others “really feel civics education hasn’t been happening in our schools” and pushing bills like this, that encourage civic learning and engagement, are important to the state’s future.
According to Simon, she and Montgomery are working on a new version of the civic education fund legislation and other bills to help encourage civic participation in New York schools.
Montgomery announced in January that she will not be seeking reelection this year and is retiring after a 35-year career in public service. It’s unclear if she’ll make a push for the civics education fund legislation in her final session, especially before the next state budget is due April 1. Montgomery’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.
What Simon likes about the civic education fund is that it is a simple way to address the problem and provide New Yorkers with greater access to civic education. Money from the civic education fund would go toward local contracting with organizations like Generation Citizen, which currently works through the New York City Department of Education and individual city schools.
Getachew believes that while the fund is a great idea that could help with smaller projects from community organizations, to really teach students civics, a huge investment needs to be made in professional development for teachers. She cited a recent Massachusetts law as a good example of a comprehensive bill that establishes a fund for civic education.
In late 2018, Massachusetts passed the bill, called “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement”, which mandates civic education in schools and establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund to “assist Massachusetts communities with implementing history and civics education state requirements.”
The law says that “in all public schools, history of the United States of America and social science, including civics, shall be taught as required subjects to promote civic service and a greater knowledge thereof and to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship.” It mandates that eighth-grade students undertake a civics project that is consistent with the curriculum - in a sense, the law mandates the kind of “action civics” work that organizations like Generation Citizen lead in schools. (Massachusetts is another of the six states where Generation Citizen currently operates. In testimony given on the New York State education budget last week, Generation Citizen said it is working with 6,175 New York students and with educators in 247 classrooms across 70 schools statewide.)
The Massachusetts law includes funding for teachers to learn. “The Department of Elementary and Secondary education shall provide professional development opportunities for educators on the history and social science framework,” it reads.
Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said in a press release, “civics education is about both learning and doing, and effective civic engagement is not simply about advocacy or action, it’s about listening, questioning, respectful dialogue, and compromise.”
This bill, along with Project Soapbox, a public speaking competition, and the Judicially Speaking Program, a Colorado-based initiative that “uses experiential learning to demonstrate the role of the judiciary in the American legal system,” were cited as part of the justification for the establishment of a civic education fund in New York.
Assemblymember Simon said that over the last decade there has been a push to encourage civics education in New York schools and “it’s not going away.” She emphasized that she will continue to push for civic education legislation going forward during this legislative session.
Currently, to graduate, students in New York State are required to get credit for a “participation in government” course. This requirement includes teaching students about current events, and a component of it has to be experiential in nature, according to Getachew.
“The reality is teachers aren't being taught how to teach students that. So what ended up happening in most participation in government classes is the teachers bring in the news and then maybe they invite in a speaker or two and that's it,” Getachew said.
The Civic Readiness Task Force empaneled by the State Education Department is looking to fill the gap in New York. Getachew is also a member of the task force, and said she is proud of the recommendations it just put forth.
They were presented to the New York Board of Regents in January. The first of the task force’s three recommendations is defining civic readiness, meaning clarity of what students should gain out of the work of civic education and engagement, which would then help in the design of that work. Getachew said that by defining civic readiness, New York State can become a “vanguard” for other states to follow.
Second, the task force recommends creating the criteria for a new “Seal of Civic Readiness,” a classification that students can achieve and get credit for on their diploma.
The final recommendation is a capstone project, urging students to explore a topic of their choice. Getachew explained that such an idea is grounded in social studies primarily, but ultimately should be interdisciplinary, allowing schools tol “ensure that all students have the knowledge, the skills, the dispositions, the actions and experiences to participate in democracy long term.”
The task force’s proposed next steps include seeking feedback from stakeholders, creating a manual for relevant professional development, creating the Seal of Civic Readiness, and returning to the Board of Regents for approval in Spring 2020.
The task force also presented two ideas for future action, including creating a statewide survey to collect data on effective civic engagement strategies one year after implementation and exploring criteria for a recognition system for schools that engage in civic readiness.
The task force’s mission statement is to “Encourage students to believe in the power of their own voices and actions. Equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to engage responsibly in our culturally diverse democracy. Empower students to make informed decisions to enhance our interconnected world.”