Local PLE Councils

Consider creating a local council on public legal education to enhance civics awareness in your community.  It is needed.  It is doable.

The problem

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor appeared on “The Daily Show” to discuss her new civic education website, , with host Jon Stewart:

 O’Connor: Only one-third of Americans can even name the three branches of government, much less say what they do.

 Stewart: That’s not good. I thought you were going to say only one-third can name the Supreme Court justices . . . .  Can they name, let’s say, an American Idol judge?
 O’Connor: Yes, 75 percent can name at least one American Idol judge.
     [nervous laughter]
 Stewart: We’re gonna need more than a website.
 (For the complete interview, see )

The research O’Connor cites here has been replicated in Washington, with similar results. In a statewide public opinion poll conducted in 2006, barely one-half of those surveyed understood what “separation of powers” means and almost one-third didn’t understand the concept of an “independent judiciary.” And these were registered voters!

Being able to name the three branches of government is not a trivial achievement. A healthy democracy requires citizens who understand how and why it functions, or they will not be able to participate in a meaningful way — as jurors, voters, community leaders, and citizen lobbyists. As John Dewey said: “We have taken democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year, in every day.”

Ignorance about the U.S. system of government is largely due to the steady decline of civic education in K–12 schools, which began in the 1960s and has been exacerbated more recently by federal legislation promoting “basic” subjects such as math and writing.

But as Stewart points out, we need more than better school programs. We need the public to learn about civics in all kinds of ways and places: when they turn on the radio in their car, when they stop in the library to pick up the latest potboiler, when they attend a PTA or Rotary meeting, and when they go online looking for advice about how to get out of a traffic ticket.

Where do people learn about our system of government?

Efforts to educate the public about the U.S. system of government are usually aimed at either youth or adults. Following are examples of where youth and adults are exposed to civic education.

 - There are many classroom-based civic education programs for youth at all grade levels. Some programs often last an entire term, such as We the People, Project Citizen, and Street Law. Others may last just a day or a few days, such as Legislators in the Classroom and Judges in the Classroom. 
 - Youth learn civics in a variety of afterschool programs as well, including mock trial, youth court, and others. Some are these activities are based in schools and some are based in community organizations such as Boy/Girl Scouts, YMCA, and 4H.

 - Adults learn quite a bit about our system of government through the media, including movies, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and websites. (Of course, much of this information is inaccurate.)
 - Many community groups invite guest speakers to their meetings to talk about their experience with or their perspectives on how our government functions.
 - Public facilities, such as courthouses, community centers and libraries, may offer civics information or events.
- Community events such as fairs or Law Day celebrations may offer information about the structure and functioning of government.

How can you increase understanding of our system of government in your community?

1. Bring together stakeholders, and invite people from other communities who have done what you're trying to do to discuss creating a local council.

 Possible stakeholders:
       County bar association
       Local judges
       School administrators and social studies teachers
       Youth court programs
       League of Women Voters
       Youth organizations: YMCA/YWCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy/Girl Scouts, 4H, FFA
       Youth groups
       Local media (newspaper editors, radio/tv station managers)
      VFW, American Legion
      Fraternal organizations
      Service clubs

2. Assess what's already being done in your community.

3. Identify unmet needs in your community.

4. Identify potential programs/activities to meet those needs.

5. Contact CPLE about collaboration with you.

Whitman County PLE

We started an informal local council for public legal education in Whitman County in 2008-2009.  Working with judges, lawyers, teachers and interested citizens, we have formed a local Youth Court, centered in the Colfax High School to hear school rules violations on referral from the principal.  As this Student Court gets up and running, we hope to expand into other public education activities in the county.