The Founding Fathers saw education as essential to safeguarding America’s system of self-governance. Civics education strengthens democracy and transforms students’ knowledge into effective citizen engagement. Improving civics education is an interest we should all share — and one that should have support across the political spectrum.

Educating students to be skilled workers and responsible citizens are equally important educational goals and must work in tandem. National Assessment of Education Progress civics test results show less than 25% of U.S. students are proficient in civics, and the College Board says that students must master computer science and the U.S. Constitution to succeed in life.

This session, state Rep. Dean Urdahl and state Sen. Carla Nelson introduced a bipartisan civics education bill (HF 249/SF 294) in the Minnesota Legislature with three provisions:

• Require students entering ninth grade in the 2020-21 school year and later to at least take a credit-bearing civics course in 11th or 12th grade beginning in the 2022-23 school year. (Urdahl proposed creating an exception for students taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Postsecondary Enrollment Options and other concurrent enrollment courses.)

• Make “civic life” (like career and college) integral to Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce law (Minnesota Statutes 120B.11) and reinforce the experiential learning part of students’ formal civics coursework.

• Direct Minnesota’s education commissioner to report the percentage of high school graduates in the previous school year who answered at least 30 questions correctly on the current statewide civics test. (Policymakers and the public pay attention to what we measure and report.)

Current state high school civics standards and benchmarks apply to grades nine through 12 and include experiential learning. District practices regarding civics education vary. Some districts teach civics education in ninth grade, some in 12th grade, and others embed civics in other social-studies courses such as U.S. history. Some districts make experiential learning part of formal civics coursework and some do not.

Minnesota requires high school students to complete 3.5 social-studies credits, including civics, to graduate (some districts require students to complete four social studies credits to graduate). The distribution of those credits is not specified in the statute. HF 249/SF 294 does not specify any particular credit amount for civics. It does not prevent districts from offering civics education in any grades K-12 or from embedding civics standards and benchmarks in other social-studies courses, nor does it affect district flexibility in administering the statewide civics test.

The House and Senate K-12 education omnibus bills (HF 2400 and SF 7) each include separate pieces of the civics education bill, such as examples of experiential learning and reporting the percentage of high school graduates who answer 30 questions correctly on the statewide civics test. Other pieces of the civics bill — for example, making “civic life” integral to the World’s Best Workforce statute — are not included.

Legislators are responsible for identifying critical educational priorities. To more sharply focus the existing contours of civics education in Minnesota and ensure that all students receive a high-quality civics education that prepares them to effectively advocate for themselves and their community and participate in the nation’s affairs, K-12 education omnibus bill conferees must adopt the substance of HF 249/SF 294 in their conference-committee report.

 

Lisa Larson is a White Bear Lake-area member of the League of Women Voters.