Saxby Chambliss: Strengthen Georgia’s future by investing in civic education

Saxby Chambliss served two terms in the U.S. Senate and four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Georgia. He is now a partner in the Atlanta office of DLA Piper.

In this guest column, Chambliss urges passage of the proposed Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would expand educational programs in American civics and history. He also teaches political leadership and the law at the University of Georgia School of Law.

By Saxby Chambliss

As someone who spent 20 years in Washington serving the people of Georgia, I know that among the mountain of bad ideas, every once in a while, there is one that can help make this country a better place.

One of those few ideas is the Civics Secures Democracy Act, reintroduced this summer by a bipartisan group of senators led by John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Coons, D-Del. The bill would authorize $1 billion annually over the next five years to support K-12 civics and U.S. history education so that students across Georgia and this country are taught the principles this republic was founded on, the freedoms and liberties guaranteed in our Constitution, and their civic duty. My wife, Julianne, taught elementary school civics for 30 years, so I know firsthand the impact quality civic education can have on Georgia’s next generation.

In this time of intense division, nothing could be more important than ensuring that future generations understand how our constitutional system of government is supposed to work, and the role that each one of us plays in ensuring the ongoing success of this American experiment our founders envisioned nearly 250 years ago.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

For too long, civics has been neglected in our schools, and it shows. However, we have seen what proper investment in education can do. In the 1960s, we invested in science, technology, engineering, and math as a result of the Space Race, and it spurred a generation of innovators that helped make America the most prosperous nation this world has ever seen. Today’s “Sputnik moment” calls for similar investment in civic education, which now receives just 5 cents per year per student.

While the Civics Secures Democracy Act aims to invest in civic education at a national level, it explicitly prohibits the imposition of any national curriculum, leaving decisions about what is taught and how with states and school districts, right where they belong. The bill simply provides additional funding for states to improve civics and history education based on local needs.

Our schools in Georgia could see at least a $20 million annual infusion over the next five years to support the teaching of civics and U.S. history. That means that our young people from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light could receive the kind of robust civic education needed to properly take up their rights and responsibilities as informed and engaged members of this society. This investment could also help improve our high school graduation rate, which was 83.7% in 2021.

We could improve the way we teach foundational knowledge, ensure our people better understand the issues of today, and expand opportunities for students to have hands-on experience with what it means to function within our form of government. It could strengthen programs such as the Georgia Youth Assembly, a three-day conference and learning opportunity that brings students to the state Capitol to meet with state legislators, officials, and other students from every region across Georgia to discuss current issues and engage in mock committee hearings and debate. Like any subject, civics requires practical application.

In 2021, more than 260,000 students in Georgia participated in the state mock election, run by the nonpartisan Georgia Center for Civic Engagement. Funds from this bill would allow that number to increase several times over — giving opportunities to tens of thousands of young Georgians in Atlanta and Moultrie alike — providing access to hands-on, practical application of the fundamental elements of civic responsibility that each person in our state and country must understand in order to preserve our American values and way of life for generations to come.

These experiences are key to creating a future Georgia citizenry prepared to inherit our republic. Just ask Melanie Kellam, a metro Atlanta social studies teacher, about the importance of these programs, and she’ll tell you: “My students learned so much about the process of government through participating in the model legislature. They learned more in three days in the program than they would have in a semester.”

The Civics Secures Democracy Act is also very much about helping teachers like Melanie by providing professional development for educators to ensure they are equipped with the skills needed to help students navigate today’s world.

But really, the act is about Georgia.

The state itself will be able to help address one of its most pressing concerns — a looming crisis in public sector jobs. It is estimated that nearly 70% of Georgia’s public servants are nearing retirement. Some could retire tomorrow if they chose. We need to inspire young people to fill these jobs.

Funds from the Civics Secures Democracy Act could help expand the “Pipeline to Public Service” — a program created through a partnership of the Georgia Department of Education, Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, Georgia Municipal Association, and other key groups — that teaches students about how and why they should consider pursuing careers where they give back to their communities and neighbors.

As shown by Sens. Cornyn’s and Coons’ partnership on this bill, reasonable folks on both sides of the aisle agree that civic education is a key solution to sustaining and strengthening our constitutional republic. Of all the things Congress is considering, the Civics Secures Democracy Act is certainly one that cannot afford to fall prey to Washington dysfunction.

We want and need our state congressional delegation to support this bill. Learn more about the bill and call or write your senators and representatives to sign on and support this important legislation, acting in the interest of our children, our state, and the very future of our nation as we approach our 250th anniversary and beyond.