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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Dean Urdahl (R)

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We can solve the civics crisis in Minnesota, if we want to

Monday, August 26, 2019


By State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township

Our Republic faces crisis after crisis: Our government is crippled by polarization; Congress can’t seem to get anything done; Supreme Court appointments have become a three-ring circus; no agreement can be reached on immigration and our borders; healthcare solutions can’t be reached; our infrastructure is decaying; and the national debt is out of control.

It’s easy to identify the problems. Digging deeper shows that these are the results of a more pervasive root cause: the diminishing of civic education nationally and in Minnesota. The foundation of our understanding of how our government works is withering. The outcomes include confusion, misunderstanding and decay in our system. A district court judge has told me that every day he sees the repercussions of citizens not understanding how our system works.

The failure is measurable. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the highly respected “Nation’s Report Card,” reports that 75 percent of our graduates leave high school not proficient in civics. They are failing. A nationwide poll found that two-thirds of Americans can name an American Idol judge, but only 15 percent can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. One-third of our graduates can’t name a single branch of our government. The Annenberg Study revealed that 37 percent cannot name one right guaranteed in the First Amendment. There are students who think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

We have been undermining civics education in Minnesota for 30 years. The growing emphasis on science, math and reading is important. But it comes at a cost. When some areas are emphasized, others are diminished. We require 3.5 credits in social studies in Minnesota. While schools are supposed to offer civics, there is no mandated credit. As a result, we have a haphazard system where civics is taught in ninth grade in some schools, to juniors or seniors elsewhere, or possibly not at all – we can’t be sure.

I spent 35 years as a social studies teacher. As a current member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, I serve on the Education Policy Committee. In previous sessions I have offered legislation to elevate civics education in Minnesota. I successfully authored a bill requiring students to take a civics test based on the test immigrants must take to become citizens. A study by the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation found that only 36 percent of Americans could pass a test that immigrants pass at a 97.5 percent rate. Last session, I tried to pass a bill that required a course be offered for credit to juniors or seniors in high school. Facing stiff opposition to that from the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), I compromised to change the requirement to “encourage.”

In its recent wrap up of the legislative session, MSBA touted its success in weakening my bill by claiming that it would reduce the number of electives and reduce local control. These claims mystify me. I compromised and amended the bill to allow for more electives. Honors programs, PSEO and other accelerated options were exempted. Frankly, it comes down to teaching what is wanted versus what is needed.

I find the local control argument ridiculous. Under my provisions, school boards would still have much flexibility. Keep in mind that one of the MSBA’s top agenda items is to gain the ability to continue levy referenda by a majority vote of the local school board, instead of putting that vote before the people. While crying for local control, the MSBA is asking to remove the ultimate local control – that vote – from residents statewide.

Next session, the MSBA plans to double down on its campaign against civic education. MSBA officials want to no longer have to offer the civics test. This crosses the line from passivity to enmity regarding civics. Testing conveys a message; we care about what we test. Eliminating the test implies MSBA doesn’t think civics is important. In Minnesota, it should not be about the number of tests, but whether, are we testing the right things.

I cannot overemphasize the fact this is a crisis with dire consequences for the future if we continue to diminish the building blocks of our nation. Some of our school districts do a fine job with civics. It should be consistent across our state. Civics should be taught in some form in all grades, but especially to high school juniors and seniors who will soon be voters and are ready to learn the subject.

Our local school boards are made up of good, conscientious people. Please talk to them. Let them know that neglecting civics education undermines democracy. MSBA officials will offer defenses and denials as most students continue to graduate deficient in knowledge of government. The MSBA will say that civics is taught; but most teach it in the wrong grades, there is no consistency and failures mount. School officials can make my bill’s provisions work if they want to; they can rectify the proficiency failure rate, if they want to; they can help save our Republic, if they want to.