By Ben Erwin
Building upon the work of the Founding Fathers, Horace Mann, the father of public schooling in America, advocated for compulsory education on civic grounds, arguing that education is vital to the development of “conscientious jurors, true witnesses, incorruptible voters.”
In hopes of returning to this ideal, citizens and policymakers alike are seeking to prioritize the civic mission of education.
Civics education was thrust into the national spotlight last November when 14 students sued the state of Rhode Island for allegedly failing to provide an adequate education to prepare students for civic life. This case is likely to have far-reaching implications for education finance.
It is viewed as an attempt to reconsider questions raised by San Antonio School District vs. Rodriguez (1973) in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unequal school funding is not a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, but asserted that, “if education inequality prevents students from their right to speak or vote, it may violate the Constitution.”
Despite national attention, states had already begun working toward increasing civic engagement and knowledge among students. In the 2018 legislative session alone, at least 31 states proposed 115 bills or resolutions related to civics education. Approaches to civics education varied widely, including implementing a civics test requirement for graduation, appropriating funding for civics education initiatives and the development of civics curriculum, as well as course requirements. Of these 115 bills, 22 states enacted 15 bills or resolutions.
Washington HB 1896 made Washington the 42nd state to implement a civics course requirement, while also providing funding for teacher professional development focused on civics instruction.
Pennsylvania HB 564 made the Commonwealth the 18th state in a growing trend requiring a civics assessment. Although access is provided to U.S. citizenship and immigration services naturalization test resources, it's up to districts to develop and administer the test. Pennsylvania, like some states which require it, does not make passing the test a graduation requirement.
Finally, Massachusetts SB 2375 took an innovative approach to integrate civics in schools through the use of service-learning projects to engage with the community and develop skills necessary for participation in civic life.
The civic mission of schooling lays at the heart of the American education system. As Thomas Jefferson originally conceived it, public schooling is vital, “… to instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties, as … citizens.” With this mission in mind, state legislatures continue to pursue avenues to ensure the maintenance of a healthy democratic republic by preparing future voters and policymakers for an engaged civic life.
For a more in-depth look at civics education legislation, please consult the NCSL Education Legislation tracking database or this NCSL civics webinar.
Benjamin Erwin is a research analyst in NCSL's Education Program.