When it comes to civics education, what students get has been inconsistent from district to district, state officials say. Fortunately, that will soon change.
Educating students about civics and how government works is too important to be left to chance.
Yet to some extent, that’s what’s been happening throughout Washington state these past few years, with civics education varying widely from district to district.
Soon, however, Washington schools will be held to a higher standard. A new law will mandate that students take a semesterlong, stand-alone civics course starting in the 2020-21 school year.
This is positive news for our democracy. Students who enter adulthood understanding government and their role as citizens are better equipped to participate in elections and hold officials accountable. Some data suggest that stronger civics education also corresponds with higher turnout among young voters.
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While Washington students have previously been required to take a half-credit of civics, they have been able to fulfill the requirement with a wide range of social-studies coursework.
That has been a recipe for inconsistency. Right now, students’ civics education may involve discussing contemporary world events and perhaps some federal government issues, but often glosses over how government works at the state or local level, said state superintendent Chris Reykdal.
In many cases, embedding civics within another course also means students don’t get a full semester of instruction in the topic, Reykdal added.
Not good enough, lawmakers said this year.
The new law, House Bill 1896, will require most students to take a separate high school civics class. Only those students who cover the topic in-depth as part of a more rigorous dual-credit class, such as an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course, will avoid having to take civics separately.
The new law also requires that students study and complete the civics portion of the naturalization test that immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.
At the very least, a renewed focus on civics education will make it less likely that Washington citizens will be easily duped by online memes misconstruing how government functions. That is part of what state Rep. Laurie Dolan, the Olympia Democrat who sponsored the bill, hopes for.
Yet it isn’t just Democrats who advocated strengthening civics education. The bill passed nearly unanimously.
At the most basic level, students should grasp the wide variety of ways they can make a difference in their communities, whether it be writing their member of Congress, attending a city council meeting, or simply casting their ballots once they turn 18.
Cultivating an informed citizenry is not a goal that should be partisan. It is refreshing to see Washington lawmakers stand together and recognize that this year.