All Minnesota high school juniors or seniors would be required to pass a civics class under a new proposal aimed at making soon-to-be voters more knowledgeable about the rights and duties of citizenship.
“The strength of our democracy, our representative democracy, is at peril,” Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said at a Tuesday news conference. “It’s critical that we have engaged, informed and empowered students who can shape their environments through their government.”
Under the proposal, students would need to earn credit for a government and citizenship class in their junior or senior year in order to graduate. Supporters say that requiring courses at that point in school is essential for ensuring students have the tools and knowledge to participate in democracy upon graduating.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said the measure is a response to concerning trends showing many Americans lack a basic understanding of their government.
He said survey data, including polls showing voters know more about reality TV judges than members of the Supreme Court, indicate “a precipitous decline in civics education in our state and nation.”
“We have three out of four graduating who do not understand how our government works,” he said. “We’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose a whole generation of people, and that’s a serious problem for our country.”
The legislation also requires that the state start collecting data on a 50-question civics test issued to all students.
Local school officials and administrators have concerns about the mandate.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he worries about the Legislature getting more involved in curricula and adding more accountability requirements for testing data.
“Once you start prescribing specific courses in certain grades, that takes away some flexibility and options for our districts and our students,” he said.
He noted that civics are already included in the state social studies standards.
“You would hope that if the teachers are teaching to the standards that they would accomplish that,” he said. “We’re optimistic that that’s what our districts and schools are doing.”
The idea is starting to spread around the country, with several national education foundations issuing reports noting an overall lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution and civic duties by high school students.
In late January, Florida’s GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order requiring education officials to “identify opportunities to equip high school graduates with sufficient knowledge of America’s civics.”
The proposal in Minnesota has bipartisan backing and support from some influential names in state politics. Former Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson and Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, both appeared at Tuesday’s news conference.
A similar proposal passed the Legislature last year as part of a bigger education package that was vetoed by former Gov. Mark Dayton.
Urdahl is hoping for a better outcome this year. He is meeting with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, a former social studies teacher, about the idea later this week.