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Washington State's New Campaign for Civic Engagement
In a recent nationwide poll, only about one-third of American adults were able to name the three branches of our government; one third of those could not name even one branch.
This distressing statistic is not about lack of school-book memorization — it speaks to the ability of Americans to have an effective voice in their government. How can citizens engage meaningfully, and feel they are heard, if they do not understand how key sections of the government function? And how can they engage in government if they have not been taught? There are many excellent civic learning programs and many strong teachers; however, the teaching of civic learning has slipped in the national and state priorities.
Engaging in government is about more than voting — though that is vitally important — it is about speaking or writing with some knowledge to your school board members, your city council representative, your county commissioner, and your elected representatives. In the twenty-first century, it also means engaging in global issues. It is an understanding of civic duties and the willingness to carry them out. It is sharing in the ideals of our democratic republic.
All of our voices are needed to help us get the leadership and the government and the communities we envision, but confusion and misinformation get in the way of these critical communications.
Civic learning is the study of citizenship, the basic workings of our government along with our rights and responsibilities as Americans. Quality civic learning is the most important factor in demystifying government and in ensuring our children can actively participate in their communities as adults — yet too many of our students today do not have access to these quality civic learning programs.
Here in Washington state, the Council on Public Legal Education (CPLE) has launched an ambitious Civic Learning Initiative to help all our students become active, informed and engaged members of society. The Initiative is aimed at strengthening the policies and resources necessary for civic learning in K-12 schools and after-school programs.
The Initiative also addresses the issue of equity and learning opportunities available for underserved youth — especially youth of color, immigrant and refugee youth, and youth in rural communities.
The plan is to establish a public-private partnership to promote strong civic learning at community levels. This partnership will enable communities to ensure that students are getting access to these high quality civic learning programs.
Individual local teams — a member of the legal community, an educator, a member of the community, a youth development worker, a youth activist, and a business leader — will lead the way with assistance from the public-private partnership.
The Initiative also is seeking support to develop a free online iCivics curriculum specifically for Washington state. It would be modeled after the national iCivics program, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Award in 2015 and launched by former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
This high quality civic learning resource could be used regardless of geography or funding level of the schools. Research has shown it improves learning for all students, across gender, race, and socioeconomic status.
As Justice O’Connor said, “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens."
The Initiative formally kicks off in January 2017 with a Summit for legislators and educators in Olympia. A showcase of quality civic learning programs is scheduled for October 2017. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has committed to participate in this showcase.
So what can you do now? As this Civic Learning Initiative moves forward in Washington, please support and consider participating in a local partnership, and connect with the Council on Public Legal Education to find other ways to help. See www.courts.wa.gov/education.
Sponsoring the CPLE Civics Learning Initiative are Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez, Governor Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.
To keep our democracy functioning, citizens must feel free to actively engage with government, to stop seeing themselves as spectators in the grandstands. This depends upon public understanding of our institutions, the basic structure of government with three branches and the checks and balances system. Let’s take steps to make the democratic process more vibrant here in Washington State. Please join the campaign to make meaningful civics learning available to all young people.
Bob Graham, former Governor and U.S. Senator from Florida
Justice Mary Fairhurst, Washington State Supreme Court