Ruiz: Civics education makes our democracy stronger
Oregon's Legislature can take a powerful step towards helping advance future generations of BIPOC leaders by passing the Civics Education Act (Senate Bill 513).
My lived experiences have given me a deep appreciation for the importance of civics education and civic engagement. Civics can help make local democracy work for everyone by building a platform for rising leaders who can represent a great diversity of cultures and lived experiences. It is our responsibility, as the current generation of leaders, to ensure that the next generation of Oregon leaders graduate high school equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage productively with our system of governance. We are falling short of that responsibility.
Oregon is one of only 11 states without a civics requirement for graduation. While Oregon has strong, established civics curriculum, the lack of a standard means that a student's exposure to civics is widely variable, often dependent upon resources. In districts with less funding, civics classes are less likely to be offered, and those students receive instruction on fewer of the Oregon social science standards that directly support robust civics education.
While only 24% of high school seniors test at or above proficiency level in civics, national studies regularly show significant gaps persist between civic proficiency scores of students of color and those of their white peers as well as by English language learner, income, and disability status. This has real world implications in terms of BIPOC civic engagement and leadership as improved civics education can lead to greater civic engagement, including the increased likelihood of voting.
Civics education can help kids of color find their voice in our system but opportunity gaps in civic engagement are similar to the disparities in civics scores between students of color and white students as well as between students from lower- and higher-income families. A report from the Center for American Progress shows:
White youth are twice as likely as African American youth and three times as likely as Latinx youth to contact a public official.
Students from families with low-incomes are "30% less likely to report having experiences with debates or panel discussions in their social studies classes."
Disproportionate exclusion from civics education — combined with other structural barriers such as voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement and an understandable distrust of government — can lead to decreased civic participation.
I can attest to the impact early civic engagement can make in terms of lasting participation in government and civic institutions. Civically engaged youth will be more likely to eventually run for office and, if we are serious about creating a more reflective democracy, we should pass SB 513 and give all students the foundation and confidence to participate in our government at every levels.
A recent report looking at the racial identity of elected officials at every level of government across the country underscored the urgency of taking steps to help ensure increased BIPOC participation in government.
The report showed:
• AAPI under-representation in the political system by a factor of minus 85%
• Latinix under-representation in the political system by a factor of minus 82%
• Native American under-representation in the political system by a factor of minus 73%
• Black under-representation in the political system by a factor of minus 43%
• White over-representation by 46%.
The problem is clear and there is a solution that is within my fellow legislators' grasp. SB 513 simply ensures that one semester out of the three years of social studies required for graduation will be dedicated to learning about our democracy. It does not increase credits for graduation and gives schools and educators ample time to incorporates the dedicated civics course.
If the Legislature is sincere in its goals of making lasting changes that address inequity and elevate BIPOC voices, civics education must be a part of an Oregon education. If our schools are the nurseries of democracy then the study of our democracy should front and center particularly as the hard work of increasing equity, justice and freedom for all continues.
The bill has already passed the Senate with overwhelming, bipartisan support. Hundreds of educators and elected officials across Oregon are now watching the House Education Committee and hoping we follow suit.
State Rep. Ricki Ruiz (D-Gresham) represents House District 50, which covers Gresham and East Portland. He is a member of the House Committee on Education and is a board member in the Reynolds School District.
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