Life, lib­erty and teach­ing bud­ding cit­i­zens

Ba­sic knowl­edge of U.S. gov­ern­ment be­comes grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ment

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY MATT O’BRIEN

NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. | Should U.S. high school stu­dents know at least as much about the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, the Con­sti­tu­tion and the Fed­er­al­ist pa­pers as im­mi­grants pass­ing an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship test?

In a grow­ing num­ber of school sys­tems, hav­ing such a ba­sic knowl­edge is now a grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ment. But states are tak­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to com­bat­ing what’s seen as a wide­spread lack of knowl­edge about how gov­ern­ment works.

Ken­tucky last week and Arkansas on March 16 be­came the lat­est of more than a dozen states since 2015 that have re­quired the high school so­cial stud­ies cur­ricu­lum to in­clude ma­te­rial cov­ered by the 100 ques­tions asked on the nat­u­ral­iza­tion exam.

Law­mak­ers in other states, in­clud­ing Min­nesota, are hop­ing to fos­ter even deeper un­der­stand­ing of the fun­da­men­tals of Amer­i­can democ­racy by adding a full course to study its most im­por­tant doc­u­ments.

“Rights might be in­her­ent, but ideas need to be taught,” said Maida Buckley, a re­tired class­room teacher in Fair­banks, Alaska, who tes­ti­fied last year to an Alaskan leg­isla­tive task force on civics ed­u­ca­tion. “When you have a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that’s based on ideas, es­poused in the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and car­ried out with a work­ing doc­u­ment in the Con­sti­tu­tion, those ideas need to be taught.”

It’s a bi­par­ti­san cause, and in many states such bills are jointly in­tro­duced by Repub­li­cans and Democrats. But pro­po­nents’ mo­ti­va­tions vary from dis­may about the lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion in lo­cal school boards and town halls to con­cerns about how Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Trump and his sup­port­ers view the power of the ex­ec­u­tive branch.

“We clearly have seen there is a se­ri­ous civics de­fi­ciency in this coun­try, all the way up to the top, the very top,” said Rhode Is­land state Rep. Gregg Amore, a Demo­crat and long­time high school history teacher who is co-spon­sor­ing leg­is­la­tion that con­tends the “sur­vival of the republic” de­pends on Amer­i­cans un­der­stand­ing its prin­ci­ples and history.

A cam­paign by the Scotts­dale, Ari­zona-based Joe Foss In­sti­tute has led many states to pass laws re­quir­ing stu­dents to know what’s on the cit­i­zen­ship test.

“It’s not a panacea or sil­ver bul­let, but it’s a step for­ward,” said the group’s Lu­cian Spataro, who said 17 states have adopted the model or some­thing sim­i­lar. “You have to learn the ba­sics be­fore you can have the higher-level dis­cus­sions.”

Other civics ed­u­ca­tion boost­ers say such a man­date is too sim­plis­tic.

“If you do some­thing like that, peo­ple are go­ing to start teach­ing to the test and teach­ing a game of Triv­ial Pur­suit,” said Charles Quigley, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cal­abasas, Cal­i­for­nia-based Cen­ter for Civic Ed­u­ca­tion. “Kids are al­ready tested to death.”

The Rhode Is­land bill, in­tro­duced by a Repub­li­can from North Smithfield, a con­ser­va­tive town where Mr. Trump is pop­u­lar, is partly in­spired by a ninth-grade class taught at North Smithfield High School. The hon­ors class uses the “We the Peo­ple” cur­ricu­lum de­vel­oped by Mr. Quigley’s group. Stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in a na­tional competition in which they must orally de­fend their ideas.

On a March af­ter­noon, teenagers stood at their class­room’s lectern one by one, de­bat­ing whether a Cal­i­for­nia police of­fi­cer can search a sus­pected gang mem­ber’s smart­phone with­out a war­rant.

As they ar­gued, some cited lan­guage from the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s Fourth Amend­ment. Others looked to Supreme Court Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis’ 1928 dis­sent­ing opin­ion in a wire­tap­ping case.

Their teacher, Natalie O’Brien, gen­tly prod­ded them to think crit­i­cally and tap into more than 200 years of Amer­i­can history and le­gal phi­los­o­phy. She didn’t tell them that, in 2014, a unan­i­mous Supreme Court ruled in the Cal­i­for­nia case that police may not gen­er­ally search the cell­phones of peo­ple they ar­rest with­out first get­ting search war­rants.

North Smithfield High stu­dent Me­gan Skin­ner said she didn’t pay much at­ten­tion to pol­i­tics be­fore Ms. O’Brien’s class, but the 15-year-old said she now uses the found­ing U.S. doc­u­ments as a guide as family and friends de­bate the Trump pres­i­dency.

“It gives us an en­tirely new per­spec­tive on all the events that are go­ing on,” Me­gan said. “You see all these things in the news, and es­pe­cially about the election, and all the things that are go­ing on with the ex­ec­u­tive or­ders he passed, the travel bans. Be­fore this class, we wouldn’t have un­der­stood these things.”


More states are re­quir­ing high school stu­dents to know at least as much about the U.S. found­ing doc­u­ments as im­mi­grants pass­ing a cit­i­zen­ship test.

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