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Notwithstanding budget crisis, R.I. mustn't cut civics position

by Matt Sledge // Published March 12, 2009 in Providence Journal

RHODE ISLAND and America in general are in a fiscal crisis that also seems to be a crisis of government. In response, the Rhode Island Board of Regents plans to cut the sole statewide civics-education position, along with funding for civics professional development. The state has historically underperformed at teaching its students the fundamentals of civic participation. Now, just when we are beginning to catch up — and just when we could surely use a critical, well-informed electorate — the state is throwing in the towel on civics.

Rhode Island has no state mandate for high-school civics classes. Whether because of cost fears or reluctance to interfere in local affairs, civics is implemented on a piecemeal, district-by-district or even school-by-school basis. Individual teachers and administrators are responsible for ensuring every student is given a decent primer on the fundamentals of American democracy. These are the teachers who register eligible students to vote in class, or give up some of their scarce free time to sponsor Model U.N. and Mock Trial teams. They work hard to give their students civics literacy, and we do too little to support them.

Indeed, my group, FairVote Rhode Island, is doing a statewide study on the condition of civics education. Responses are still arriving, but so far we have found widespread eagerness to improve civics education along with a general hunger for more support from the state. One school administrator told us they “need the district to support a civics program,” and another welcomed professional development, saying, “The Social Studies Department would be receptive to just about any topic (Voting, Amendments, Legal Issues, Branches/Types of Gov’t).” Teachers need professional-development support, lesson plans and recommendations on classroom best practices.

Unfortunately, in the teeth of the current state budget crisis, the Board of Regents has determined that the state can no longer afford its only — that’s right, we have just one — civics-education specialist. The state is also cutting $15,000 for teacher training in civics and the Civics Day program at the State House.

The timing couldn’t be worse.

In December, the Regents finally approved state standards on Civics & Government and Historical Perspectives. It took much hard work on the part of our current civics-education specialist, Kamlyn Keith, to make that happen. So it is a cruel irony that we are losing her position just when our state was poised to finally make real progress in this area. (She is being transferred to cover two other positions.) Without support from a civics-education specialist, there is scant hope that the just-issued civics standards will be implemented by school districts in a uniform way.

High-school seniors about to enter a dismal job market could surely use historical perspectives — from George Washington’s leadership at Valley Forge to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural — on our current situation. It would say something less than appealing if our state’s first instinct in the midst of a crisis is jettisoning critical thinking.

Everyone saw the enthusiasm young citizens have for civic participation in the course of the 2008 presidential election campaign. The presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent that of John McCain, were both able to tap into the excitement that young people feel about their country.

The Board of Regents should reverse its plan to cut the state’s lone civics-education specialist. It should restore funding for civics professional development. The board has its eyes set on cost-cutting, but its vision is myopic. Priorities must be set during times of economic uncertainty, but civics education must be one of our priorities. Our newest voters and taxpayers must be given the critical-thinking tools they need to hold their government accountable.

Matt Sledge is director of FairVote Rhode Island.