Cynical Youth Lack Civics Education

Oregon state legislators are worried that their constituents don’t know enough about state government.

There are three bills proposed in the current 2015 session to improve civics education in Oregon: HB 2977, HB 2955 and SB 484. Each has a different angle, but all stem from the same general feeling: Kids graduating today don’t know enough about the legislative process to understand that they have a stake in the system.

In 2004, under direction from the state Legislature, the nonprofit Classroom Law Project conducted a survey of Oregon high schoolers to assess their knowledge of state and federal government. They found that only 22 percent of students could name both state senators in Congress. The average score on the survey was a high D. Only 20 percent of students said “Yes” to the statement, “I think that people in government care about what people like me and my family need.”

Sen. Chris Edwards (D-Eugene) says the lack of civics education in public school today is part of the reason why there is such an “abysmal turnout” of young voters. Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) says he’s “very dismayed” about the lack of civics taught today. Both legislators are sponsors of HB 2977, a proposal to provide funding for the already established “Civics Day” — the first Friday in December when teachers convene at the Capitol to learn and strategize about civics education.

Barbara Rost, program director at Classroom Law Project, says the proposed amount of $100,000 every two years would be enough to pay for travel for two teachers from every district in the state. Currently, there is no funding attached to Civics Day.

“We’re always amazed by the number of social studies teachers who have never been to the state Capitol,” she says. On Civics Day, teachers are invited to hear from senators and representatives and learn about classroom strategies to get students engaged in the political process.

Edwards says he is wary about trying to impose another educational mandate. He has also proposed a bill, SB 484, that would establish a task force to examine how the state could best improve civics education. Rost says since there was already a task force just a few years ago, she’s not sure if that’s necessary.

Civics is already part of mandatory curriculum in K-12 education. It’s supposed to be taught in 5th grade, 8th grade and high school. Rost says the Common Core standards, by requiring analytical reading and thinking skills, actually have the potential to benefit civics education. But, she says, often in the earlier grades, literacy takes precedence over civics because of the tests kids take.

Rost says that in high school, civics is not a mandatory class. It is just mandatory that schools offer it as a social studies course. Rost says she thinks high school is too late to convince students that civics is an important part of their lives.

HB 2977 takes a different stab at preparing young Oregonians to be civic-minded adults. It proposes making a civics test — directly related to the exam required for immigrants to be naturalized citizens — a requirement to graduate from high school. The bill is sponsored by four Republican and one Democratic representative. Rost says it is a horrible idea, because she says the exam is already shown to be faulty.

“We need to empower kids, not tamp them down by making them take another test,” she says.

Rep. Sal Esquivel (R-Medford) is a sponsor of HB 2977, but he also supports the bill to fund Civics Day.

“I think they go hand-in-hand,” he says. “We have to teach it, and we have to get some kind of results from it.”

Esquivel says he’s concerned that we require that people who move to this country know more than the people born here. By tying the test to high school graduation, he thinks it would force teachers to dedicate more time to civics.

Edwards and Rost are concerned that young people are inherently cynical about politics today. Rost says they don’t have the “requisite body of knowledge to be cynical,” and yet they are. She hopes that by funding teachers to attend Civics Day they would be able to spread what they learned to professionals in their district.

Oregon is not the only state with low young-voter turnout or poor civics education. Rost thinks it’s especially important in this state because Oregon is dominated by referenda and initiatives — legislative processes that require direct political participation.

The Civics Day bill has bipartisan support, with many more legislators sponsoring it than Edward’s bill or HB 2977. All three are currently in their respective chamber’s education committee.