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January/February 2014, Vol. 56, No. 1

Committee seeks official State Bar policy strengthening civics education in schools

Civics Spotlight 

Teaching civics—The award-winning Law, Youth and Citizenship Program promotes professional development for educators throughout New York. Pictured above, iCivics instructor Desiree Bayonet works with teachers at the LYC/PATCH Summer Institute for civics and law-related education at Northport/East Northport UFSD. More than 100 teachers attend the annual June/July institute to learn about programs such as iCivics. LYC reaches hundreds of teachers each year, and thousands of K-12 NY students through a variety of programs. [Photo by Eileen Gerrish] 

By Patricia Sears Doherty
 “The first duty of the State and the surest evidence of good government is the encouragement of education….”
– Governor DeWitt Clinton, Jan. 3, 1826, from an address to the State Legislature

When the House of Delegates convenes during the Annual Meeting in New York City in January, it will be asked to adopt a formal association policy advocating that the state’s political and educational leaders take seriously their constitutional mandate to strengthen civics education, not diminish it, as appears to be the case in the rush to implement Common Core curriculum into classrooms throughout the state.

The report and recommendations on civics education by the Committee on Law, Youth and Citizenship (LYC) will be on the House agenda on January 31 for action. Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye will speak at the House meeting in support of the committee’s report and recommendations.

Coincidentally, the committee, whose mission is to promote citizenship and law-related education in the state’s schools, will mark the 40th anniversary of its creation at the House meeting.

The committee will ask the State Bar to adopt a policy on civics education that would “encourage policymakers at all levels of government,” including, but not limited to the governor, state Legislature, Board of Regents and state Department of Education, to ensure that all students experience high quality civic learning and that it is given an “educational priority on a par with reading and mathematics, ” according to the report. 

Civics crucial to education

Governor Clinton’s words, at the top of this article, are carved into the polished black marble wall over the security desk in the annex to the State Education Building. It is the first thing visitors see when they walk into the entrance hall. Significantly, the State Bar’s LYC program office is housed in the same building.

“That quote actually means, ‘the encouragement of civics education,’ “ said Richard W. Bader, committee chair.

The committee’s report was a response to troubling surveys and studies showing how little Americans know about civics. “The magnitude and breadth of people’s lack of civic knowledge and understanding is staggering,” states the report. It provides examples, such as:
• “Nearly half (45 percent) of Americans were unable to correctly identify the three branches of government,” according to a 2011 report from the American Bar Association (ABA);
• “More than half (57 percent) of Americans couldn’t name a single current justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,” according to the same ABA report; 
• “Out of 14,000 college students, 71 percent of those Americans failed a basic civics test,” according to news reports.

The committee will recommend that its goal of addressing those failures be achieved “by enactment of statutes and regulations to require civics education in all grades for all elementary, middle and secondary students in the schools of the nation and this state, in addition to providing appropriate funding for such programs as may be necessary to fulfill these policy goals.”

Bader of Albany (New Visions Law & Government Program) said adopting a formal policy identifying the importance of strengthening civics education should be the State Bar’s first step in its effort to hold state policymakers accountable for what the report calls the alarming decline 
in “Americans’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of democratic values and fundamental constitutional principles.”

“The point is that our educational system should strengthen civics education, not diminish it,” Bader said. The next logical action for the State Bar to take, Bader said, would be to “sit down with the state Education Commissioner (John King) and the Board of Regents and see how we can work with state Education to empower students as productive citizens.” Changes cannot be made in the current curricula “until you can talk to the people who will be implementing that education,” he said. 

A powerful voice

The report makes note of the State Bar’s long tradition of encouraging civics education. Since its launch in 1974, the LYC program has enhanced civics education throughout the state with such programs as “We The People” and “Project Citizen,” its statewide Mock Trial Competition and Mock Trial Summer Institute and by training hundreds of teachers each year.

In 1988, to mark the bicentennial of New York’s ratification of the Constitution, the State Bar and the New York Bar Foundation produced “An Empire of Reason,” a mock television news special. In it, legendary newsman Walter Cronkite chronicled the debate that raged among the states during the ratification process. The film received national praise.

In 2011, when the changes mandated by the implementation of the Common Core curriculum in New York’s schools were first realized, then-President Vincent E. Doyle III began “sounding the alarm” about the diminishment of civics education in press releases, public service announcements  and an article in the State Bar News. 

Doyle and the State Bar made civics education a top legislative priority because “a vibrant democracy needs engaged citizens who understand the rights and responsibilities of being an American.”

At the 2013 House of Delegates meeting during Annual Meeting, the report of the Special Committee on Voter Participation was approved. Its report, and a Presidential Summit panel discussion that week, addressed barriers to voting and proposed policy changes that could improve voter turnout. 

The Voter Participation report recommended that pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds as voters be established. “The LYC committee would be happy” to work with the State Bar on advocacy for that change, said Bader. 

One of the State Bar’s state legislative priorities for 2014 is enactment of a public policy to require that civics education be incorporated in all grades.

“It is very possible that if the state and education policymakers see an association of this prominence and size taking a position supporting increased civics education, they will take the step toward improvement,” said Bader. 

The House of Delegates will vote on the report during its meeting on January 31 at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City. 

Sears Doherty is State Bar News editor.