OPINION: Civic education is an American issue—not a partisan one

The General Assembly is considering the creation of a state commission on civics education to help students understand why it is critical they become informed and active citizens.
The General Assembly is considering the creation of a state commission on civics education to help students understand why it is critical they become informed and active citizens.

Legislature is considering commission to help students understand importance of civic involvement

Randell E. Trammell is the founder and CEO of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, which educates and equips students to become informed and active citizens. He works with school districts across the country in developing policies and programs to bolster civic ideals.

In this guest column, Trammell encourages creation of a state commission on civics education to help students understand why it is critical they become involved citizens. The Legislature is considering such a commission this session.

By Randell Trammell

We have seen through the centuries—and most recently—the magnificent strength embodied in the constitution and its continued relevance as a guide for our nation. Benjamin Franklin in his wisdom also gave a cautionary tale when asked by a passerby about what type of new government we now had after the constitutional convention… His response was, “a republic, if you can keep it.” We are left with Franklin’s charge of being a steward of that gift of a republic—though often an onerous task.

Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many is the declining levels of civic engagement across the country. This is a trend that started several decades ago, and has been on full display in recent months. Confidence in our elections and governmental leadership at all levels is also extremely low. This is fueled, in part, by a lack of knowledge about how the government works. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public trust in government, as of March 2019, only an unnerving 17% trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. We also see this lack of engagement in civic behaviors, with Americans’ reduced participation in community organizations, especially among young people.

In Georgia, state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, and state Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville, have introduced bills (Senate Bill 220 and House Bill 589), called the Georgia Civic Renewal Act, that creates the Georgia Commission on Civics Education. Both bills have passed through their respective committee and are headed to the floor in which they originated.

I had the pleasure of attending the hearings in both the Senate Education and Youth Committee and the House Education Committee. In each meeting, there was concern—and rightly so—that the commission be bi-partisan in its work and approach. There is language in both bills that ensure commission membership to the minority party, but additionally, there are a number of others named in the legislation that would help ensure a bi-partisan focus.

One example of this is one of Georgia’s Supreme Court Justices will be named to serve. These jurists are among the finest in the country and have an abiding appreciation for the rule of law and due process. Both the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce have been named in the bills as having a seat on the Commission. As nonprofit business leagues, they will approach the subject from the eyes of what is good for business and employability.

Dr. Randell Trammell
Dr. Randell Trammell

The House version of the bill was amended in committee to add a named representative from each of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association. While the act does not specifically name these individuals by position, it is presumed they would be a county commissioner and a mayor—respectively.

Lastly, my own organization, the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, is concerned about teaching students the processes of government and how students fit into the equation. Our stated goal is to “educate and equip students to become informed and active citizens.” We teach strictly the process. A decade or so ago, one of the student ‘party’ groups asked if we could introduce the party system into our model legislature. My answer was then (and remains) “no. We teach the process. Politics comes soon enough on its own.”

As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every community across America, schools must play an important role in catalyzing increased civic engagement. They can do this by helping young people develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life. Schools can also directly provide opportunities for civic engagement as a local institution that can connect young and old people alike across the community. To do this, civic learning must be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills.

To date however, civic education experts argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people’s school experience. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. Few states prioritize the range of strategies, such as service learning which is only included in the standards for 11 states, not including Georgia, that is required for an effective civic education experience.

The study also found that social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities like coaching school sports than other teachers. Student experience reinforces this view that civic learning is not a central concern of schools. Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem and 30% say they have never taken part in a debate-all important parts of a quality civic learning.

Lack of civic education isn’t just an educational issue—it becomes a civic engagement issue… In the recent 2019 Georgia Civic Health Index, which explores the way civic participation changes across demographic variables—income, educational attainment, age, race/ethnicity, and geography as well as compares Georgia’s rates of civic participation to other states and to national averages, our state ranked below the national average on the quite a few items.

During the often intense and arduous debate surrounding founding of our new nation, the delegates spent countless hours holed into Independence Hall. It was in the continuous sessions that it is reported Benjamin Franklin spoke of the presiding officer’s chair and its unique sun design, saying, “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun.” More than just a symbol, Franklin saw a glimmer of hope. And so it is with Georgia students and the civic potential that we now see on the horizon with the passage of this act.

To use a football analogy, it’s not about moving the ball ‘left’ or ‘right’, it’s about moving the ball down the field. In this case, the ball is civic education, which has implications for years to come. To bring matters closer to home, civic education is a Georgian issue—not a partisan one.

For more information on the Georgia Civics Renewal Act, go here.

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