Civics for some

Indiana will soon require students to take a semester-long course in civics in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. The requirement was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb. It applies to “each school corporation, charter school, and state accredited nonpublic school.”

You might think that covers everyone, but it doesn’t. According to the Indiana Department of Education, fewer than 200 of the state’s more than 300 private schools are state-accredited. Judging by a state list (see link below), most Catholic and Lutheran schools are state-accredited. Many other Christian schools are not, although they may be accredited by groups like the American Association of Christian Schools.

The new law calls for the State Board of Education to adopt civics education standards, which will be the basis for the required course. It also establishes the Indiana Civics Education Commission, made up of legislators, other state officials and educators, to recommend further civics education actions.

The focus on civics is part of a national trend. According to a report from the Center on American Progress, the subject has received renewed attention since the 2016 election, sparked in part by stagnant scores on social studies exams. Officials also were alarmed by surveys that found only one in four Americans could name the three branches of government and that trust in government had tanked.

In Indiana, the effort got a boost from the 2020 Indiana Civic Education Task Force report, a 56-page document with a host of recommendations produced for the Indiana Bar Association.

The idea that schools should teach civics is not controversial. The Indiana legislation was approved by votes of 49-0 in the Senate and 88-1 in the House. But what a good civics course looks like, and how it should be taught, may not be so simple. I’d envision civics with a strong dose of U.S. history, drawing on sources like Learning for Justice and the 1619 Project. Some legislators might not agree.

A 2020 report from the Brookings Institution casts civics as an “essential 21st-century skill,” incorporating not only knowledge of government but engagement in civil discourse and activities like voting and volunteering. The Brookings report also looks backward, connecting civics with American history and the common-schools movement of the 1800s.

“The fact that children today across the country wake up in the morning and go to school five days a week for most of the year has everything to do with civic education,” writes author Rebecca Winthrop. “The idea of a shared school experience where all young people in America receive a standard quality education is inextricably linked to the development of the United States as a national entity and the development of citizens who had the skills and knowledge to engage in a democracy.”

I’d take the argument a step further and suggest the reduction of official support for public education – as we’ve seen in Indiana – may be linked to the decline in civic awareness and engagement.

Indiana legislators may be boosting “civic-ness” with one hand, when they mandate a new course for elementary and middle-school students. But they’re undercutting with the other, when they increase state support for private schools and turn their backs on the very idea of “a standard quality education.”

Maybe it’s the legislature that needs to learn civics.