A state senator’s concerns about the proposed definition of “civic readiness” prompted the state Board of Education on Thursday to postpone voting on the document meant to guide schools in teaching young people how to be good citizens.
State Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said the proposed definition does not follow existing state Americanism statutes that define civics education and includes “politically charged” language that is unnecessary.
“There might be a desire by some to change it, but it is existing state law,” he said. “Reading between the lines, maybe I’m paranoid, but it looked like some individuals thought they were antiquated and needed to be updated and if the state Legislature didn’t do it, the state school board should. I don’t see that necessity. I would think state statute trumps everything else.”
During the last legislative session, senators introduced bills to update the Americanism law that dates to 1949 and the McCarthy era.
Sen. Lydia Brasch’s bill would have required students pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test to graduate. Sen. Bob Krist amended a similar bill he’d introduced so that it didn’t make the U.S. citizenship test a prerequisite to graduation and gave local school boards more control over how to teach civics. Krist’s bill was endorsed by the Nebraska Board of Education. Neither of the bills passed last session, and Groene indicated Thursday he would like to see some changes to Krist’s bill.
Board member Rachel Wise said the board's definition is not an attempt to take away from existing statute, but to build on it.
Cory Epler, the state education department’s chief academic officer, said state social studies standards follow the Americanism statutes, and the definition was not a prelude to updating social studies standards, which won’t happen until 2020.
Instead, he said, the work is part of the Nebraska Board of Education’s strategic plan, which included creating a “comprehensive approach to define and measure civic readiness” by 2018, and the draft definition was the first step.
The document is intended to offer guidance to teachers of all subjects, and ultimately offer a way to measure civic readiness.
“If anything, we hope it broadens the scope of who ultimately is providing support relative to civic readiness,” Epler said. “Because civic readiness isn’t just the sole responsibility of social studies teachers.”
Groene said he would like to see the word "America" in the document and thought terms such as “community organizing” and “collective action” are politically charged. The document says nothing about running for office or volunteering on a local board.
"It separates, not unites," he said. "It's all about being on the outside and trying to change. How about also encouraging being on the inside and being part of the process?"
Groene also said the committee that came up with the definition should have had broader representation, and not have been primarily educators.
“My dad, with an eighth-grade education, knew what it means to be an American,” he said.
Board members said they appreciated Groene’s input, specifically the idea that voter turnout of young people is a good way to measure civic involvement.
The draft definition the board was supposed to vote on says students should have a fundamental understanding of the structure and function of government, civil rights and responsibilities and processes by which laws are made. Skills should include listening, collaborating, community organizing and public advocacy. It stresses understanding different opinions, active participation in improving a community, state, country and world, and valuing civil discourse between opposing interests.
Board member Pat McPherson offered his own version, which he said was based on concerns he’d heard from numerous people. It adds the words “American” citizen, removes some language, including “community organizing,” and adds elements including volunteering or participating in community efforts and elections, respecting the armed forces, honoring the flag and possibly running for elective office or volunteering to defend the country.
The existing Americanism law stresses teaching children to take pride in the country and those who created it; requires teachers to teach about the U.S. and Nebraska constitutions and of the “dangers and fallacies of Nazis, Communism and similar idelologies.” It also includes language about valuing civil discourse, and requires younger students memorize the “Star-Spangled Banner” and learn reverence for the flag.
The board will send the proposed definition back to a committee for further review.