Legislators aim to engage youth through civics education

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, of the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District, which includes the towns of Belchertown and Granby, is interviewed by Carrie Saldo of WGBY in Springfield for the weekly “The State We’re In” segment of the nightly program “Connecting Point” on March 9. Lesser, along with state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, I-Amherst, and many others, is backing a revision to the commonwealth’s civics education curriculum. Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting

For the Gazette
Published: 3/22/2018 12:08:31 PM

BOSTON — “It doesn’t matter if you are Republican or Democrat, in the House or in the Senate. We all worked together on this.” That’s how Senate President Harriette Chandler introduced a new bill poised to standardize civics education in Massachusetts.

If passed, a civics education curriculum would likely be required in schools as early as the 2019-2020 school year, according to Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow.

The proposed law would require public schools to cover “the roles and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy” and “media literacy skills that equip students with the knowledge and skills for accessing, analyzing, evaluating, and creating all types of media, including print, online, television, and social media” in the curriculum. Additionally, students must learn both the form and function of American government and participate in civic engagement projects.

But Lesser pointed out that schools don’t need to wait to incorporate civics education in their classrooms.

“A lot of school districts are already doing some version of this so it would be consolidating or working with what they already have,” said Lesser. “Our hope is that the funding would be done in conjunction with the bill. So, the funding would probably begin as they need to hire new staff and get their training set up, and then it would ramp up as the program actually gets started.”

“I really view this as the start of hopefully a whole movement around saying ‘OK what are some of the lessons from the 2016 election?’ One of the lessons is we need to do more to connect people to their government and for people to understand how government and participatory democracy works,” said Lesser.

There is more that can be done toward “empowering everyone to be active citizens,” according to Lesser. Some ideas included making voter registration more accessible or even automatic, providing more access to citizenship training and civics education for adults.

Another Pioneer Valley legislator extolled the hands-on nature of the proposed curriculum changes, which would require public schools to afford each student the chance to engage in at least two civics projects before the end of high school.

“I fairly recently attended public K-12 schools in western Massachusetts, and I did not take a class called civics,” said State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, I-Amherst, at the unveiling of the new bill.

The 24-year-old representative said that he was fortunate to have a teacher that inspired him and encouraged him to get involved in civics, ultimately leading to his current role as a state representative. But his good experiences with civics education relied on “the initiative of one individual teacher and a few people along the way,” he said.

“This needs to be standardized so that every student across the commonwealth has the opportunity to do hands-on civics learning,” Goldstein-Rose said. He explained that he is particularly excited about the project-oriented aspects of the bill because “civics is inherently project-based. It is inherently participatory. It doesn’t work otherwise.”

Goldstein-Rose said that the risks posed by a trend of decreasing civic engagement are high. “Speaking for my generation, millennials, we’re at an all-time low of voter turnout … and we need to reverse that trend if we want government systems to be effective in the long term.”

The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure Thursday.

Christine Lytwynec writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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