February 4, 2014: Civics Should Be An Educational Priority, New York State Bar Association Says

Citing “a shocking level of decline” in Americans’ understanding of the framework of our democracy, the New York State Bar Association today urged the state Board of Regents, Legislature, Governor and others to make the teaching of civics in our schools “an educational priority on par with reading and mathematics.”

“Preserving the fundamental civic mission of schools is vital to the continued success of American constitutional democracy,” states a report on civics education by the association’s Law Youth and Citizenship Committee.

The report was adopted January 31 by the association’s House of Delegates during its Annual Meeting in New York City. 

“Children who are taught the fundamentals of democracy grow up to be more active and engaged adults,” said State Bar President David M. Schraver of Rochester (Nixon Peabody). “It is vital that New York rededicate itself to teaching civics and government so that future generations have the tools necessary for them to contribute to society.”

The report chastises state education leaders for reducing the emphasis on civics education, stating that social studies is now a “secondary curriculum” in schools, with history and civics being lumped together under literature. It also cites the recent elimination of state social studies tests in fifth and eighth grades, and a plan by the state Board of Regents to allow students to skip global studies and history exams and to require fewer social studies credits for graduation.

“Can the elimination of government classes be far behind?” the report asks.

“The magnitude and breadth of people’s lack of civic knowledge and understanding is staggering,” concludes the report, citing a number of studies. For example, a 2011 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found: only 58 percent of New Yorkers could name either of the state’s two U.S. senators; only two out of 10 considered themselves very familiar with the U.S. Constitution; only two-thirds knew that the President is in charge of the executive branch; and only three out of five knew that the legislative branch makes laws.

“There’s no question that the STEM subjects— science, technology, engineering and math— are important elements for students to find jobs,” said Richard W. Bader, who chairs the Law Youth and Citizenship Committee. “But beyond that, students also need an understanding of how and why our democratic society works so they can contribute to society outside the workplace.”

Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye spoke emphatically in support of civics education at the House of Delegates meeting.  She is the author of the 2003 Court of Appeals decision that the “sound basic education” guaranteed under the state Constitution must “convey not merely skills, but skills fashioned to meet a practical goal: meaningful civic participation in contemporary society.” 

The entire report is available online at: www.nysba.org/LYCcivicsReport2014/.

The State Bar Association has long been a strong supporter of civics education. Its Law Youth and Citizenship program has been actively engaged in schools since it was founded in 1974. Each year, it reaches more than 5,000 teachers and tens of thousands of school children through its We the People, Project Citizen, Mock Trial Competition, Mock Trial Summer Institute and teacher-training programs. The LYC website, www.nysba.org/LYC, contains resource materials for educators, as well as links to other civics education programs.

On January 22, State Bar President Schraver sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo about the critical need to enhance civics education.  “One of the major shortcomings of today's curriculum is the failure to provide meaningful civics education to our state's students,” he wrote. The letter is available at www.nysba.org/civicseducationletter.
 
The New York State Bar Association, with 75,000 members, is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country. It was founded in 1876.

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Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director of Media Services & Public Affairs
mmahoney@nysba.org
518-487-5532