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'Democracy is fragile,' congressman says as he proposes $1 billion in federal grants for efforts.

FILE PHOTOS - U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Ricki Ruiz U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Ricki Ruiz have added their voices in support of civics education in Oregon high schools.

Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon's 3rd District, is sponsoring the USA Civics Act to provide $1 billion in federal grants to encourage Oregon and other states to require civics education.

Ruiz, a Democrat from Gresham, sits on the House Education Committee, which on Thursday, May 13, advanced a Senate-passed bill to a vote of the full House. Senate Bill 513 requires one semester of civics education for graduation, starting in 2025-26. Ruiz also sits on the Reynolds School Board.

Unlike many pressing issues, Blumenauer said, people get this one.

"People care," he said Tuesday, May 11, at an event to call attention to the federal and state legislation. "Our concern is being able to get people's attention and focus on it. I am absolutely convinced that if we have a requirement for civics education, it will help galvanize this."

But perhaps the strongest case was made by Josedavid Muñoz-Ronquillo, a junior at Parkrose High School, where graduating seniors must complete a full year of either government and economics or Advanced Placement U.S. government.

Muñoz-Ronquillo said:

"Civic instruction teaches us about our rights, our laws and our government. It gives students the foundations they need to make up their own minds on political issues and policies, while it teaches them that their voice matters and their vote matters.

"A civics class can open so many eyes and inspire and create future lawmakers, lawyers, and maybe even a future president. If it is the role of schools to prepare students for the outside world, then civics education should be a part of what we are learning. There is nowhere else where this information can be obtained without intensive research by individual students."

All three, plus a social studies teacher at Sisters High School and the executive director of the Classroom Law Project based in Portland, spoke to reporters at the virtual event.

Oregon is one of 11 states where civics education is not a requirement for high school graduation. Senate Bill 513, which passed the Senate on April 7, would add one semester of civics to the other requirements of four years of English and three years of math.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has measured it every four years since 1998 (except 2002), only 24% of those students sampled in 2018 demonstrated proficiency in civics — and that level has not changed much in 20 years.

According to studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 25% of adults surveyed in 2016 could name all three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — although it jumped to a high of 51% last year. Only 48% in 2017 could name freedom of speech as one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, but it jumped to 71% last year.

'Democracy is fragile'

As a student at Lewis & Clark College — following his 1966 graduation from Centennial High School — Blumenauer advocated lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, which became both state and federal law in 1971. The following year, at age 24, he was elected to his first public office as a state representative.

Blumenauer referred to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — where protesters loyal to former President Donald Trump unsuccessfully attempted to stop congressional certification of the victory of Democrat Joe Biden — as a wakeup call.

"It's clear how fragile our democracy is — and how important it is to have citizens who are knowledgeable and who fight to protect it," he said.

Ruiz was elected a state representative last year, barely eight years after his 2012 graduation from Reynolds High School, and just three years after he was elected to the Reynolds School Board.

He also referred to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a similar breach Dec. 21 at the Oregon Capitol, where anti-lockdown protesters entered a vestibule after Republican Rep. Mike Nearman opened a door for them. Police ejected them and repelled a second attempt to breach another entry while the Legislature was in a special session. (Ruiz was seated for the 2021 session on Jan. 11.)

"Our capitols were attacked by people intending to cause great harm to our lawmakers, staffers and first responders," he said. "As we recover and move past these events, we must reimagine our approach to legislating and how we view education. This starts by holding a conversation about civics education in schools."

Teachers speak out

Gail Greaney, a social studies teacher at Sisters High School, said civics would help students think more critically about the flood of information they get through social media and other means.

"Democracy requires something of the individual. It requires us to be intelligent, to be informed, to be active participants," she said. "If we are going to actually ask our students to grow into the role of citizen, we need to prepare them to do that. It doesn't happen organically, it isn't something we can expect to have a positive outcome if we don't do any work on the front end.

Greaney teaches an Advanced Placement class in U.S. government.

"Putting our resources in Oregon towards a dedicated civics course indicates that that's something we value, that we value an active, informed citizenry."

Erin Esparza is executive director of the Classroom Law Project, a nonprofit based in Portland that promotes civics education. It sponsors an annual conference for civics teachers, a mock trial competition for students, and other activities.

Esparza said the nonprofit supports Senate Bill 513.

"I would say the hardest thing for us is that we cannot reach every teacher," she said. "It is specific teachers who are given opportunities to have the time and the focus to work with their students on these things that make a difference."

"This would open the door for a lot more teachers."

Blumenauer said his legislation would complement any state requirement.

"It is not a substitute at all for having a civics requirement," he said. "But the federal government would be putting some resources toward beefing it up, make it more effective, and show that we are all in this together."

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NOTE: Updates with House Education Committee unanimous vote to advance Senate Bill 513 to a vote of the full House.

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