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Civics education bill backed by area lawmakers signed into law

  • State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose (fifth from left), looks on as Gov. Charlie Baker signs a new civics education bill into law.  Submitted photo



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 08, 2018

AMHERST — Even though Solomon Goldstein-Rose, now 24, became a state representative in 2016 soon after graduating from Brown University, and was a member of the Amherst School Committee while in high school, few his age are as engaged in the political arena.

But Goldstein-Rose, who represents the 3rd Hamsphire District, said that he hopes a civics education bill he played a role in crafting will help public school students understand political issues and the importance of voting even if they don’t one day run for elected office.

“This has been one of the most wonderful things I’ve gotten to work on,” said Goldstein-Rose, who chose not to run for re-election to a second term. “It’s about empowering young people. It ties into voter registration and participation in a non-partisan way.”

The civics education bill, formally known as an Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker Thursday. Its aim is to ensure that Massachusetts’ next generations of voters are educated about government systems and know how they can contribute to enhancing American democracy.

Not having these skills may be a reason so many young people don’t vote when they turn 18, Goldstein-Rose said.

“I do think that’s one factor in my millennial generation being historically low in voter turnout,” Goldstein-Rose said. “This is about making sure people are active citizens.”

Since 2017, Goldstein-Rose has been part of a bipartisan working group of House and Senate lawmakers brought together to craft a unified bill that requires civics education and specifically promotes opportunities for project-based learning. It builds on a new framework curriculum developed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will include a full-year civics course in eighth grade.

While the bill had been percolating for many years, with Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler a lead sponsor, Goldstein-Rose said the bill gained traction following the 2016 presidential election.

The bill makes civics education a required subject in all Massachusetts public schools as part of the U.S. history and social science curricula. Instruction will include lessons on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the function of the three branches of government.

According to the bill, the curriculum should also develop skills needed to critically analyze written and digital media sources. These aspects were championed by state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, in a separate bill that was incorporated into the final legislation. Lesser had recognized the influx of fake information during  the 2016 presidential election, and that students needed to understand how to tell fact from fiction and evaluate news and commentary.

“My hope is that these new civics classes will energize young people to get involved,” Lesser said in a statement issued by his office. “A healthy democracy needs citizens to be well-informed and engaged, and that begins with educating our young citizens.”

The bill directs the Secretary of State to establish a non-partisan high school voter challenge program to encourage eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.

One of the elements Goldstein-Rose is most pleased with is that instruction will be hands-on, showing students how to get involved in politics, whether advocating for a bill before the Legislature, or simply contacting a state or local representative.

“Government systems are inherently participatory,” Goldstein-Rose said. “They are shaped by everyone’s individual actions and attitudes, so you can’t learn how things really work without being involved a little bit.”

Because of the involvement of state education officials, the civics curriculum will be incorporated in all public schools in a standardized way, without taking time away from other subjects, while also giving schools flexibility in the approach, Goldstein-Rose said.

One section proposed by Goldstein-Rose encourages school committees to proactively gather input from students, which he said could be done by an outreach officer.

Goldstein-Rose said he that appreciates Amherst, where he was educated, has done some civics education, observing that two teachers at Fort River School have brought him, as well as members of Amherst Select Board and U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, to listen to students make appeals. And middle schoolers in recent years have presented to Town Meeting, first to have Indigenous Peoples Day replace Columbus Day on the town calendar, and for the town to continue its support of the Paris Climate Treaty. 

But it was just by chance, meeting and talking to then State Rep. Ellen Story, and being encouraged by teachers and administrators, that led him to run for elective office.

“When I went through school, we didn’t have civics classes,” Goldstein-Rose said.

While the Senate in March and the House in summer passed the bill, Baker sent the bill back to the Legislature with an amendment. Goldstein-Rose said Chandler and state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, the House co-sponsor, reached unanimous agreement with this amendment, allowing the signing to finally take place.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.