State and Local Efforts to Improve Civics Education Are on the Rise

“Many people, especially young people, are no longer content to sit on the sidelines

while their futures are decided by others.  Comprehensive civics education will equip

our students with the tools they need to become the informed, active citizens our

forefathers imagined when they created our systems of government.”

-Mass. State Senate President Karen Spilka


Across the country, there’s an increased focus on the importance of civics education in our K-12 schools. It’s a response to several concerns including low voter turnout, the spread of partisan misinformation or “fake news,” and research showing how little Americans know about the U.S. government.  An Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, for example, found that only 26 percent of adults were able to correctly identify all three branches of the government; 31 percent could not name even one.

All 50 states plus D.C. have some type of civics requirements for high school graduation, but these vary widely. Some have very minimal requirements, such as Montana, which merely requires students to take two units of social studies. Some, like Arizona, require high schools seniors to pass a civics test in order to graduate.

But being an active citizen requires more than memorizing the branches of government and some states are going further.  In Massachusetts, for example, Governor Charlie Baker recently signed into law a bill promoting civics education in public schools. Among other things, the new law requires eighth-graders to complete at least one student-led civics project and establishes a fund schools can use to train teachers, develop curriculum, and partner with institutions of higher education on civics-related projects.

And some teenagers themselves are demanding more.  In Rhode Island, public school students and parents filed a federal lawsuit against the state arguing that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution. They say Rhode Island has not equipped its students with the skills needed to “function productively as civic participants” capable of voting, serving on a jury and understanding the nation’s political and economic life.

Currently, Rhode Island allows local school districts to decide for themselves whether and how to teach civics, and the lawsuit says that leads to big discrepancies. Lawyers for the students hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and even prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.  It should be noted that both retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter have called for a revival of civic instruction.

“Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions comes with young people and the next generation,” said Michael Rebell, lead lawyer for the Rhode Island students and executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. “What we’re really seeking is for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to take a strong stance on getting back to first principles on what the school system was established for in the United States.”

Here in New York City, voters recently approved a new Office of Civic Engagement, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn-based NYC Council member Brad Lander.  It remains to be seen what changes the Office will propose to the NYC Department of Education, and whether New York City or State will join the growing chorus for formalizing comprehensive civics education in our schools.  At SLP, we have seen a consistent and fervent demand from local schools for the training and resources needed to engage their students in youth-driven activism, as well as the tremendous impact on students of all ages who experience hands-on civic engagement. We hope meeting this demand will be at the top of their list.