Following the lowest young voter turnout in history in the 2014 national midterm elections, the House showed interest in civic education as a priority. House Speaker Robert DeLeo put expanded civics ed on his agenda earlier this year, but when the House passed a bill to expand the framework Wednesday, DeLeo rejected a Senate proposal to make civics a graduation requirement.
DeLeo said that he was surprised by how many people he heard speak about civic education for K-12 students.
“People were concerned that our young people aren't getting the civics education that they should be getting,” DeLeo said.
The Senate bill listed two student-led civics projects as requirements for eighth graders and high school graduation, but the House bill left it up to school districts to decide how to implement the civics education spelled out in both bills.
Advocates cited a survey by Tufts University that showed only 22 percent of teachers felt they had appropriate resources to develop a civics curriculum. Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley said a new Civics Trust Fund described in the bill would fund professional development for educators to teach civics in the classroom, and help related student-led projects and initiatives.
The expanded curriculum framework includes the usual lessons from the existing general law on local history and government, the U.S. flag and the electoral process, but adds some on media literacy and historical voter disenfranchisement.
The bill also introduces a “Commonwealth Civics Challenge” for eighth grade students to compete statewide on a project collaboration with nonprofit institutions like libraries, museums and universities. Peisch said this is intended to reach future voters at a young age so they are more likely and more prepared to participate in the democratic process.
“That is a way to ensure that all of our students are exposed at the age where they are more likely to get engaged,” she said. “If we wait until their seniors in high school, we’ve lost the moment to get their interest.”
Once students near voting age, this bill would also implement annual “high school voter challenges” with on-campus registration for eligible students.
Advocacy group the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition noted disparities across the state in the quality of civic education in schools.
“We’re facing a time where more people in our society know the names of the Three Stooges than the three branches of government,” Steven Rothstein, Executive Director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said on behalf of the coalition.
“It is critical that people understand the government and that they get involved, that they vote and that they participate,” Rothstein said. He continued that educating students on civics can be expected to increase young voter turnout.
“If you’re not learning about government in school, you're less likely to vote,” he said. He added later: “Democracy is not a spectator sport… everyone has to participate.”
Lawmakers now have to settle between the two bills, one with the graduation mandate and one without.