Editorial: Teach civics in every school to make better citizens

SHARE Editorial: Teach civics in every school to make better citizens
SHARE Editorial: Teach civics in every school to make better citizens

If you were to ask random Americans to name the three branches of U.S. government, more often than not you would get a blank stare.

Only 36 percent of adults surveyed last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania correctly responded that there is an executive branch, a legislative branch and a judicial branch.

Thirty-five percent could not name a single branch.

One in five Americans incorrectly thought a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

Apathy and ignorance plague our democracy. How can our democratic system belong to the people if most of those people stand on the sidelines?


In Illinois, a bill introduced by state Rep. Deborah Conroy, D-Elmhurst, and approved by the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education with bipartisan support, would require a semester of civics to graduate high school, beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. That’s an excellent idea, long overdue.

Illinois is one of only 10 states that does not require at least one civics course. A task force for the Illinois State Board of Education recommended one be required last year in a report to then-Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly.

Currently, high school students are required to take two years of social studies, one of which must be U.S. history or a combination of U.S. history and government. The bill essentially says a government class — or civics, as it’s called here — no longer would be optional.

Many schools already include government in their curriculum, and they meet the bill’s requirement for classroom instruction.

Most existing government classes give students the who, what, where and why of our political system, but the civics bill calls for a participatory approach. Discussion of current and controversial events would be part of the curriculum. Students might debate the virtues of term limits for elected officials, for example, or the role of unions in the workplace. Other students might look at such hot topics as the anti-police protests in Ferguson, Mo., or federal anti-terrorist surveillance practices.

Students also would have to meet a service requirement, whether it’s volunteering at a campaign office or a nursing home, and participate in simulations of democratic processes such as voting or enacting laws. As written, the bill gives teachers leeway on subject matter.

In 2012, more than a dozen Chicago Public Schools implemented a civics-minded pilot program, upon which Conroy’s bill is partly modeled, called the Global Citizenship Initiative. Students at Alcott College Prep started a mock super PAC to study the influence of money in elections. At Steinmetz, students lobbied for repairs to a malfunctioning metal detector that was causing some of them to arrive late to class.

That’s democracy in action.

Ideally, public funds would support this new curriculum requirement, but Illinois is broke. About $3.3 million has been secured in private funds, mainly from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, for teacher training. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like enough money, a concern that will draw complaints of yet another unfunded mandate.

But the bill’s supporters point out that most schools already have highly qualified social-studies teachers who will need minimal training. There is an expectation that after the initial rollout costs, the requirement will be budget-neutral. Special books won’t be required and there will be no standardized tests.

All private donations should be managed by the State Board of Education, creating a firewall between donors and schools so there is no interference on subject matter. That separation is crucial and must be included in the bill.

Schools are a vital launching pad for active citizenship. A classroom experience that helps students across the board find their citizen’s voice, no matter if they live in Kenilworth or East St. Louis, is the way to go.

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