IL Passes Civics Bill, still needs timeline for implementation

Below is a lengthier version of a blogpost written for Mikva Challenge.  The signed Act now has a trailer bill to define a timeline for implementation.


Towards the end of August Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into Law a requirement for all high school graduates to have equal access to high quality civics courses starting in school year 2016-17.  The law defines high quality as a “one semester course” that teaches the “skills, knowledge, and attitudes” need to become “competent and responsible citizens” in the 21st century.  The Illinois CivicsRequirement inherently recognizes that Civics must be an active learning process calling for “simulations, service learning,” and opportunities for youth voice and empowerment.

The urgency for the law is apparent: only 49% of Illinoisans voted in the most recent Gubernatorial election, and only 31% of the votes came from Millenials (18-35 yr olds.)  Even beyond voting, there is a general feeling of in-efficacy and non-agency in government and politics.  When I ask students who have never taken a civics course if they want to vote, volunteer, or debate issues in their community, I often get a response similar to “Why should I vote/care, nothing will change anyway.”   However, across the board those numbers jump when young people have a chance to participate in action civicsand service learning in the school setting.  So much so that in the March 2014 Gubernatorial Primaries -which traditionally records low voter turnout- new voters (17 & 18) out-voted their parents across the state!
To use the Table metaphor, if we want to ask young people to sit at the table with us, we have to show them how dinner is better when they’re in attendance. Or as my colleague says, “Democracy is reserved for those who show up.”  If we as a society believe school really is for everyone, than civics – like drivers ed, health, or math- should be required, and particularly so in a time of heightened racial and economic discord when citizens across the United States feel like we couldn’t be farther from the opposite ends of the table on our issues. Action Civics in the classroom can provide a safe space for young people to explore issues that matter to them, and engage in democratic methods to impact society.
Unlike other states such as Arizona, which have recently reduced Civics to another high stakes test, the classroom teachers who aided in design of the bill language purposefully omitted a testing component because of the recognition that Action Civics cannot engage young people via only pencil and paper.  While some believe that might take away the teeth what some call this “Civics Mandate” I believe it instead provides classroom educators the autonomy to generate engaging, meaningful lessons that are responsive to the needs of each student and school community in Illinois.
Currently, Illinois law requires two social studies credits to graduate, one of which must be United States History, and students must pass a Constitution Exam to graduate. That requirement does not change.  But the social sciences has been struggling recently: we have been forced to retro-fit our curriculum to Common Core Reading and Writing standards, which some parents and educators -like myself- argue devalues the content we teach.  Compounded by budget cuts, like other schools and districts across the state, my former principal found it necessary to cut Social Studies elective courses.  In the past students were able to enroll in one of eleven different electives (Geography, Law, Latin American History, etc. ), but due to budgetary restrictions from every revenue stream, we now offer only three.  The Civics requirement can guarantee that each school offers another high quality elective course in my school and across all Illinois schools.
But as we know well, mandates alone can be problematic for schools, educators, and of course students.  This will require tremendous supports in the form of professional development. Chicago and some suburban schools have gotten a head start from the body of curriculum developed by teachers, professional development support network like the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, and content specialists like elected officials, attorneys, political scientists who dedicate their time and energy to talking with teachers and students.
Already Chicago Public Schools is in its third year of employing the innovative and adaptive Global Citizenship Initiative, and has been so successful that more than sixty teachers will be using the curriculum this school year.  The GCI curriculum combines action civics and financial literacy content, and outlines different “tracks” teachers may choose depending on the goals of the class.  Curricula like this combined with high-quality professional development is what will support teachers in making this new Civics requirement a success.
This could not have ben achieved without the demand from young people, and the engaging instruction of educators with the energetic support of civics-oriented non-profits collaborating across Chicagoland and Illinois like the Mikva Challenge, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and the youth-led Chicago Votes Education Fund.  Brought together by support from McCormick and similar civic-mission foundations, and led by Shawn Healy of the McCormick Foundation, the Illinois Civics Requirement Law is really a collaborative effort of everyone from young people and teachers in the classroom to curriculum developers to foundations and government supporting the health of our democracy today and for generations to come.
John Dewey the 20th century philosopher credited for the design of contemporary American education system once declared that “in order for democracy to thrive, it must be reborn each generation, and education is it’s midwife.”  I applaud the Governor and General Assembly’s foresight and expediency with which they acted, as well as the educators, and educator support network that worked hard to design strong language that honors what high quality civics should look like in our schools in the 21st century.

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