Wisconsin GOP wants to improve state’s civics grade
Public and private school civics courses would ensure children learn the ABCs of government
Mitchell Cotter, 20, came to the University of Wisconsin–Platteville planning to study engineering. But he switched his major to political science after seeing the national tension in 2020 over COVID-19 safety measures and social justice initiatives. The college junior is applying to work with the Democratic Party during Wisconsin’s midterm primaries next summer, and he eventually wants to get a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science. “I plan on running for office one day,” he said.
During his sophomore year of high school in Menasha, Wis., Mitchell took an American government class to prepare for the state-required civics exam. This summer, he learned more about government at the state level when he interned with Rep. Jodi Emerson at the Wisconsin state Capitol, where lawmakers are now debating a slate of bills that would affect schoolchildren. One of them: a Republican-sponsored measure requiring public and private schools to teach a civics course. While the state already requires students to pass a civics exam before graduating from high school, a course is not mandatory. Under the proposed bill, schools would have to follow a curriculum that includes content about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Proponents of civics education sometimes point to the classes as a solution for low voter turnout or inadequate public knowledge: A 2016 study found that nearly three-quarters of survey respondents could not name all three branches of U.S. government. According to a June 2021 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Wisconsin’s civics requirements standards are too vague to ensure that content gets covered. The institute gave Wisconsin a score of F, saying that a “complete revision of the standards is recommended.”
Christopher Riano is president of the Center for Civic Education, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to “promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry.” Riano said the center is seeing more interest in civics among adults: “Right now there is definitely a renaissance and focus on how important this really is to, especially, our democratic constitutional republic.”
Riano was an electrical and computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University before transferring to Columbia University and changing his major to political science. The complexity of constitutional systems fascinates him, he said, but his engineering streak hasn’t left him: “I’m the first to celebrate, you know, us putting a satellite into space, and I’m also the first that recognizes, if you don’t have a functioning government … you can’t put that satellite in space.”
According to an Education Week survey in 2018, 36 states required a civics course in high school. Last month, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., introduced the Teaching Engaged Citizenship Act, a bill to require civics education in schools. “American democracy relies upon an informed, engaged citizenry,” she told the House a few days later. “Our young people need to understand how government works.”
Despite this renewed interest, “civics education” can be hard to define since groups approach it differently. Broadly speaking, Riano defined it as the study of the frameworks members of our society use to relate to one another. It can include the study of big ideas like social contracts, constitutional theory, and majority rule and its relation to minority rights. A good civics education will help students understand how their community works and how they can make a difference locally or nationally.
“Something affecting all of our lives every single day is something that we should wake up and take notice of,” Riano said.
The Wisconsin State Assembly passed the civics education bill last Tuesday, almost entirely along party lines. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and get a signature from Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who formerly served as the state superintendent of public instruction, before taking effect. Current state superintendent Jill Underly, a Democrat, said she supports the measure.
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