OPINION: Civics education needed in Oregon high schools
Democracy depends on an educated citizenry. As mayors and longtime educators, we constantly see that need and we live that self-evident truth.
In our years as educators, we have witnessed an overwhelming focus on students passing tests — at the risk of learning less. In particular, social studies too often has become an afterthought and there has been a near complete abandonment of civics education.
For that reason, we strongly support Senate Bill 513, a bipartisan bill that will ensure Oregon high school students receive at least one semester of dedicated civics instruction before graduation. We believe it is crucial that young Oregonians understand our republic and that participation is necessary at every level of government.
The national percentage of students with even basic knowledge about their federal, state, and local government is dismally low. Despite this crisis in civics literacy, Oregon remains one of only 11 states that still does not require stand-alone civics education for graduation. With this bill, Oregon has a chance to remedy that.
We believe that civics is an essential component of a well-rounded education. Our founders saw a direct link between a strong public education system and the health and strength of the American republic. Civics plays a crucial role in helping students learn to think critically and effectively participate in our society and our government. The skills acquired through civics instruction, including the ability to analyze multiple perspectives, work collaboratively and communicate clearly are vital skills for any student, regardless of the vocation they pursue.
Civic engagement across the country also has been declining for decades. When citizens withhold their voice from the process, either because they do not know how to engage or they do not believe their engagement will matter, our government becomes less representative. We must give our students the tools and the knowledge to realize and use their civic rights.
As mayors, we believe that our local government and the polices it produces are made better through the active participation of informed residents. The policymaking that goes on at the municipal level has some of the greatest direct impacts on the daily lives of citizens. It is at the local level where citizens have the greatest access to their elected officials and the greatest ability to shape decisions and outcomes.
The lack of civic literacy has profound impacts on our government and the people's faith in it. Whereas 75% of Americans born in the 1930s believed it was essential to live in a democracy, only about 30% of Americans born in the 1980s believe that today.
Currently, civics standards are taught across multiple social studies classes and over multiple grade levels, making a foundational understanding of civics difficult to achieve. In districts with less funding, civics classes are less likely to be offered, and those students may receive instruction on fewer of the Oregon social science standards that directly support robust civics education.
By passing SB 513, the Oregon Legislature will be taking an important step toward equipping young Oregonians with the tools they need to become active and informed participants in civic society. Our students and our shared communities will all be better for it.
Beth Wytoski is a teacher at Dayton High School, the mayor of Dayton, president of the Oregon Mayors Association and a 2019 recipient of the League of Oregon Cities Civic Education Award.
Eric Swenson is the mayor of Woodburn and served for over 30 years as a teacher and principal including at Woodburn High School and French Prairie Middle School.
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