Democrats and Republicans in the Oregon Senate are divided on many issues — but not on the importance of teaching how democratic government works.
A 25-3 vote by the Senate on Wednesday, April 7, approved Senate Bill 513, which would require high school students to complete one semester (one-half credit) of civics before graduation starting in 2025-26. The bill goes to the House, which has similar legislation pending.
Oregon students already are required to complete 24 credits before graduation, four in English and three in math, the rest determined by administrative rule. Lawmakers in 2017 passed a bill, also sponsored by a Republican, to "encourage" districts to offer civics instruction. But it was not a requirement.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons said civics should be added, given that only 24% of students tested in a 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress — otherwise known as the nation's report card — were proficient or better in civics. The average score on civics was 153 of 300, largely unchanged from 150 (and 22% proficient) in 1998. Except for 2002, civics has been assessed every four years since then.
Girod, the bill's chief sponsor, said it is common for his staff and that of other legislators to get calls and messages relating to federal, county and city matters.
"This bill plays an essential and critical role in ensuring that Oregon students not only have a grasp of the democratic process, but also learn how to participate in it," he said. "As a legislative body, we very well know how government works. It is our duty and responsibility to make sure that generations after us do as well."
The bill has mustered support from a variety of individuals and organizations, including the Classroom Law Project based in Portland.
Kevin Lepley, president of the Oregon Council for the Social Studies and a teacher at Kings Valley Charter School in Independence, said civics instruction is scattershot now.
"There is inequity in civics education where some students receive dedicated focus on the subject while others receive limited instruction scattered across multiple social science classes," Lepley said in a statement after the Senate vote. "This inequity has real implications for our students and our society and it must be addressed."
Democrats joined Girod in speaking for the bill.
"In the leaner budget years of the last couple of decades, civics education has been one of the first things on the chopping block," Sen. Jeff Golden of Ashland said.
He said civics should teach students how rights and responsibilities should be balanced in a democratic society.
"My judgment is that our sense of that balance, especially among young people who have not had civics education, is wanting and needs addressing," he said.
Majority Leader Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego sat on a City Club of Portland panel a decade ago that assessed civics education in the metro area. He said one of its conclusions was that the state should set standards and offer professional development for teachers.
"One thing that should not divide our citizenry is our deep love and abiding concern for our state and federal constitutions and our love for our country and state," he said. "That requires an active citizenry engaged in learning our history and how government functions."
Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland, a former broadcast journalist, said real-life politics isn't as it is portrayed in television shows or movies.
"At its core, it is a careful acknowledgment and respect for all Oregonians — the ability and the desire to make Oregon better by working together," he said. "Demonizing other Oregonians only brings out more demons, more targets — and fewer paths to a better state. Understanding those paths is what the study of civics is ultimately all about."
Sen. Chuck Riley of Hillsboro said he has offered himself as a guest speaker in schools. "I encourage you to do the same in your districts," he said.
The bill drew just three votes against it: Republicans Dallas Heard of Roseburg and Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, and independent Brian Boquist of Dallas.
Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is the chief sponsor of a similar bill in the House.
"We are either serious about civics education and pass this legislation," Evans, a college instructor in speech communication, said, "or we are going to continue to kick the can down the road, and we are going to continue to see a public that does not know how to vote for their own self-interest because they don't understand how government works."
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