As chair of the Teenage Republicans of Massachusetts, Xaverian Brothers High School senior Mike Brodo has been closely following politics since he was 4 years old. But the Holliston native laments that he had no experience with civics education until high school.
By Nick Neville, Boston University Statehouse Program
“There was no exposure in any curriculum,” he said. “There was no talk about politics in any way, maybe except during the election they would briefly talk about the Electoral College or something like that. But never about the issues.”
Zev Dickstein, vice chair of the Massachusetts High School Democrats, said he too received “zero” education about civics until high school. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, Mr. Dickstein said, most people only take the optional civics course because they cannot get into other classes.
A bicameral group of state legislators, along with Mr. Brodo and Mr. Dickstein's organizations, are looking to change that. The Senate unveiled legislation March 20 at the State Library that would enact comprehensive civics education curriculum in schools across Massachusetts.
After 16 amendments were debated, the bill won Senate approval Thursday and now moves to the House for consideration.
“The bill will fortify Massachusetts' civics education curriculum and will set a foundation for the next generation of leaders,” said Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester.
The experiences of Mr. Brodo and Mr. Dickstein affirm the concerns of Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee. She said that while Massachusetts has a civics requirement, there have been concerns about the depth of that teaching.
The legislation, which would first apply to the graduating class of 2022, would ensure that public schools teach students about the roles of citizens in a democracy, the electoral process and media literacy.
It also requires students to take part in two civics-led projects, one of which would be a high school graduation requirement. These projects would be made available through the Civics Project Trust Fund, which would be funded through the state budget.
A bipartisan group of House and Senate legislators, including the two youngest members of the Legislature, Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, and Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, an independent from Amherst, praised Ms. Chandler's efforts championing this issue for years.
Mr. Vargas' work with the youth advocacy group Teens Leading the Way, which pushed for civics education eight years ago, led him to public service. Under this bill, the project-based learning that inspired Mr. Vargas, 24, would be required of every student.
Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda, who previously served as principal of South High Community School, implemented community service learning 12 years ago and said she saw great results. She expects that the civics projects proposed in this legislation would similarly “change students' lives.”
“I've always found that the service projects had such a tremendous effect on students,” she said. “When we first started this at South, one student said to me, ‘For the first time in my life, I feel that I was able to make somebody else's life better.' ”
In Worcester public schools, Ms. Binienda said, that because of limited budgets, only a few civics electives are offered.
But she credited the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's service learning program for providing grants from 1990 to 2011 that included civic engagement, and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation for its youth philanthropy efforts.
“There's really a lot that has been going in pockets for years, and the reason I think this bill is good is that it will probably bring together those pockets,” she said.
Mr. Brodo believes the curriculum is important because it will do more than just equip student to “rattle off a bunch of facts about how government works.”
“Obviously it's a mandate and we need it to be a mandate, because that's the only way for people to kind of dip their feet in the water, per se, and see what civics is all about,” he said. “I like how there's that flexibility with the projects in that they can do what they like and combine it into something that's not so rigid and molded.”
Mr. Dickstein, who was Sen. Elizabeth Warren's guest at the State of the Union address in 2014, said the bill would help level the playing field for young people who are “often left behind” in government.
“This is really not an issue where we're leading as much,” he said. “Massachusetts leads on many issues, but I think this bill does lead.”
Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, told advocates March 20 that the piece of this bill that deals with accurately analyzing sources is critical.
“It's buzzy to talk about fake news, but the way we teach how information is processed, how sources are checked, hasn't been updated in probably 30 or 40 years,” he said.
Ms. Chandler said it's “very unusual” to have a bill with this level of bipartisan support, and the students believe it promotes progress and cooperation in the long run. The high school Democrats and Republicans are organizing a joint lobby day for the bill on April 3.
“If young people can work together and find common ground - look what's happening in Washington,” Mr. Dickstein said. “It's so polarized. That is really the future is people finding common ground and working together.”
When asked why she introduced the legislation, Ms. Chandler said she was inspired after going high schools every year and seeing that young people weren't registered to vote.
“I want them to graduate high school with a diploma and with a voter registration so that they're ready to vote,” she said. “And the next step from that is to get them involved ... I want young people to understand they have a voice and how to use that intelligently.”