It’s a frequent criticism of public schools — kids don’t learn civics. With questions in recent years springing up about voting rights and the powers of different branches of government, the calls for improved civics education have only grown louder. Oregon has now taken steps to ensure more teaching of civics and government, with legislators in both chambers approving a bill to make such coursework mandatory for graduation.

The Oregon House approved Senate Bill 513 Monday 60-0, legislating a half-credit course on civics in order to get a diploma. The bill passed the state senate in April, with three “no” votes, and it now goes to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature.

Students’ limited knowledge of government was documented recently in civics assessment results published by the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP test. In 2018, only 24% of eighth-graders nationwide scored “proficient” on the civics assessment. Four years earlier, it was essentially the same with only 23% of students scoring proficient. And so on.

“There was no significant change in the percentage of students performing at this level compared to 1998, the first assessment year,” said a statement on the NAEP web site discussing test results.

It’s a problem that doesn’t get addressed in high school either, judging by data Oregon lawmakers cited in their civics education measure.

The text of Senate Bill 513 cited that the last time high school seniors took the NAEP civics exam for that grade — back in 2010 — just 24% were considered “proficient” at civics. It also found more than one-third of seniors who took that 2010 exam were in the lowest category, possessing a “below basic” knowledge of government.

The consensus among lawmakers, though, shouldn’t be confused with unanimity in the state over why the bill is needed and what it might lead to. Support for the bill came from progressives and conservatives; with both sides noting the polarized political context the civics requirement will enter.

“Recently, we have witnessed the actions of many persons who have been convinced of whack-a-doodle theories and untruths,” said Medford constituent Gayle Clason in testimony submitted in support of SB 513. “The attack on the Capitol in Washington D.C. (and state capitols) is proof that some do not value democracy. Voter suppression and violence against minority people is another case where misunderstanding civil rights is a symptom of lack of education in this area.”

Others cautioned that the civics requirement should not be an opening to push progressive-leaning curriculum into public schools.

“This is a commonsense bill as long as our liberal leaders do not get ahold of it & shove race, class, & gender into it!” wrote Josie Alexander in testimony submitted in March.

But the nationwide problem that dates back at least two decades will take another half decade to be fully enforced in Oregon.

The civics course will be a graduation requirement starting with students in the Class Of 2026 — those students are entering eighth grade this coming fall. In other words, civics won’t be required of current high schoolers, or incoming freshmen.

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