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This Week in Civics: Debate Rages in Nebraska and a Youth Forum in NH

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Each week, I like to look back on news related to civics education and highlight some of the more interesting and timely articles from around the country.

This week, it seems like a lot of the news revolves around what’s going on in Nebraska with their State Board of Education, but there’s also an interesting event up in New Hampshire.

So without further ado, let’s dive in…

Debate Over Civic Readiness in Nebraska Continues

Over the last two weeks, I’ve written a couple of times about Nebraska’s new strategic plan and it’s vision for civic readiness. The State Board of Education decided to write “civic readiness” into that plan, and the Board is now in the process of defining what exactly “civic readiness” means.

They were set to adopt that definition last week at their regular monthly meeting, but it was pulled from consideration. The proposed language has apparently caused a bit of a kerfluffle in Nebraska. If, like me, you thought that it sounded awfully progressive for Nebraska – well some Nebraskans thought so as well.

According to the Lincoln Journal Star, “Nebraska ed board holds off on ‘civic readiness’ vote because of state senator’s concerns,’ State Sen. Mike Groene wasn’t happy with the initial draft. He took offense to some of the language which he found to be “politically charged” – the phrases “community organizing” and “collective action.” He feels that they’re too tied to President Barack Obama and, presumably, to groups like ACORN.

Groene also implied that there was a disconnect between the State Board’s proposed definition and existing statute. Cory Epler, the Chief Academic Officer for the State Board, disputed this and essentially suggested that Groene misunderstood the purpose of the document.

Battling Editorials/Opinions about Civic Readiness

There were other reactions in the press as well. The Omaha World Herald published an editorial titled, “State Department of Education wise to reconsider civics definition for teachers.” They agreed with Groene that the language was politically charged. They made the argument that sing language like “community organizing” would have been equivalent to using language like “America first.” The former suggests a connection with progressive and leftist policies, while the latter suggests a connection with nationalistic and populist polices.

This was followed by a letter to the editor, “What’s wrong with the phrase ‘community organizing?’” In it, Anna Kenny argues that the term is not tied to President Obama or to Democrats. I would tend to agree with her. The only way you can make the argument that community organizing and collective action is exclusively a Democratic practice is if you simultaneously argue that the Republican party stands for atomizing communities so that a small oligarchy can maintain power. In reality, people of all political ideologies engage in organizing, and establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle would prefer that we weren’t organized.

But I digress. I’ll be eager to see how this debate plays out and what the State Board decides to do. This reminds me of the debates over proposed national standards for history.

Youth Forum in New Hampshire

The Concord Insider reported on a youth forum in its article titled, “Youth forum at Concord High.” The forum is the project of the New Hampshire Legislative Youth Advisory Council. It is a free, three hour forum designed to give students a space to discuss issues important to them and to hear directly from legislators and policy makers. It’s only open to participants aged 15 to 22.

The forum is set to feature a number of state elected officials, including State Senators, former judges, and representatives from interest groups. I think this is interesting on a number of levels. One, it shows the importance of a Youth Advisory Council of some sort. In Greenbelt, Maryland, the Youth Advisory Council helped move forward a referendum on lowering the voting age. This is a way to ensure that young people are heard and represented in government, even if they can’t officially hold office (or vote). New Jersey apparently does not have one, although there is a group that is trying to lobby the Governor to create one by executive order.

And this is also a good example of teaching civics by connecting people directly to elected officials. I know that as a graduate student, I learned a lot in my time as an Eagleton Fellow because we met directly with public officials. In class, you can invite public officials to be guest speakers to help make this connection for your students. This also reminds me of the Civic Conference in Oregon, although that was aimed at civic educators instead of a general audience of young people.

But these are two potential policies to advocate for – a youth council and a public forum for young people – to help improve civic engagement amongst teenagers.

If you’re interested in YACs, read more about Youth Advisory Councils here.

Civic Ignorance is an International Problem

The Guardian reported on the state of civics education in Australia in an article titled, “Naplan scores: Australia’s civics education ‘woeful,’ minister says.” In short, the Naplan assessment – which sounds kind of like NAEP – shows that students’ knowledge of civics hasn’t improved in the last ten years.

This problem isn’t uniquely an American one, at least. Although the assessment was also paired with a survey about civic attitudes. In that survey, 85% of students thought it was important to vote. Based on a completely non-scientific and non-randomized sampling of my students, I can tell you that far less than 85% of my students and their parents would agree.

Did I Miss Anything?

Is there anything else going on that we should be talking about? Leave a comment below and let me know.

And how do you feel about the shenanigans in Nebraska?

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