Bill Pushes Civics As Graduation Requirement
By Samantha J. Gross
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON -- As a student at Lowell High School, Carline Kirksey was frustrated with some of the curriculum. Her social studies classes hardly touched current events and she knew very little about what was going on in politics.
She got involved in UTEC, or the United Teen Equality Center, and helped support a bill that would support a more robust civics education in schools.
It’s been eight years since Kirksey, now 23, was involved with a civics bill. On Tuesday, “An act to promote and enhance civics engagement” was unveiled in a press conference at the State Library.
Under the Senate bill, public schools would require students to complete two student-led civics projects, which aim to help students to explore the connections among federal, state and local policies. The first class to take this requirement would graduate in 2022.
The bill also would require public schools to include American history and civics in curriculum, covering national and local history, functions of government, federal and statewide constitutions, the electoral process, roles of citizens and media literacy. Students also will be expected to “identify and debate issues relative to power, economic status and the common good in democracy.”
The Senate plans to debate the bill Thursday.
Senate President Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, Education Committee co-chairs Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Alice Peisch, and members of the Legislature’s Civics-Education Working Group described the bill at the press conference as a “consensus House-Senate legislation.” The Senate Ways and Means Committee has offered up a re-draft of the bill.
Chandler stressed that the bill is “bipartisan, bicameral, bi-everything.”
“It doesn’t make any difference whether you are Republican or Democrat, House or Senate,” she said. “We all work together. The bill will fortify Massachusetts’ civic education curriculum and set up foundation for the next generation.”
State Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said she hopes to see a larger commitment to civic engagement and commitment to government moving forward.
“I believe civics education empowers today’s students with the knowledge they need to work effectively to improve our society,” she said.
Chang-Diaz, among others, brought up the recent gun-safety walkouts as examples of students exercising their civic duties. She said that while they received praise for showing up, they really deserved praise for showing up with grace and understanding.
“They did it with such craft and such savvy,” she said. “This is not something cute. Democracy is hard work. Democracy is not something that self-sustains over time.”
Representatives from UTEC were lauded by Chandler and Donoghue for their work on the bill. UTEC works on civic projects with Lowell’s most disconnected young people to “trade violence and poverty for social and economic success,” according to founder Gregg Croteau, who led UTEC’s effort for eight years.
“This was such a unique experience,” Croteau said in an interview. “Things take time but the can happen. If you see the ways people are being successful with this, there’s bright possibility of what’s to come.”
Croteau added that UTEC members can make change using the civic education they receive through experience. This bill allots that experience to all students of Massachusetts public schools.
“Civics is not just learning how the government works,” he said. “It’s about empowering your beliefs that you can create change.”
Tico Mirambeaux, a UTEC member from Lowell, said he never even knew the Statehouse existed until he joined the group three years ago.
“Kids needs to start learning about our government, both state and federal,” Mirambeaux, 21, said in an interview. “It will help them focus on a better path and maybe move kids to vote, become lawyers or even work in the Statehouse.”
Another UTEC member, Jefferson Alvarez, said the bill would “open everyone’s eyes.”
“They can get an education that is not only in the streets,” said Alvarez, 22, of Lawrence. “People need to learn about politics because there’s so much going on.”
Some educators -- like those in Lowell, Malden and Boston -- have also taken up a special interest in civics education inside the classroom. The district partnered with Generation Citizen to make civics a graduation requirement.
Last year, Lowell students partnered with the city to set up a food bank at Lowell High School and establish a gun buy-back program. Because the model was successful at the high school, Generation Citizen has partnered with middle schools in the city to introduce civics into their curriculum.
Billerica Superintendent of Schools Tim Piwowar said the schools have always pushed to create meaningful opportunities that allow students to be civically involved.
“Regardless of what a student’s future career may be, being civically engaged is a lifelong skill that is important to develop,” he said.
Thomas Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, has been working with lawmakers.
“That’s the spirit behind the bill -- don’t just providing curriculum-related solutions, but also to have other opportunities for schools to think about how they encourage and involve students in their community,” he said.
Lawmakers made civics education a priority this year, alluding to President Donald Trump’s divisive tendencies.
Scott alluded to the Trump administration.
“There’s a lot of division of so many issues today. It’s so important that youngsters understand the foundations of what constitutes working together, listening to different points of view,” he said. “Part of it is how we get people to talk over boundary lines, and part of it is to ask what sort of actions and behaviors we need to support one another.”