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Merriam-Webster dictionary defines civics as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and how government works”.
Nebraska statute 79-724, commonly known as the Americanism Law, instructs our schools’ employees on the public’s will that our children shall be taught civics, on United States history, the U.S. and state constitutions—which define their rights as American citizens—the benefits and advantages of our form of government and the duties of citizenship. Nebraska law 79-725 also gives direction to teachers on instilling character principles in our children; “common honesty, morality, courtesy, obedience to law, respect for the national flag, the United States Constitution, and the Constitution of Nebraska, respect for parents and the home, the dignity and necessity of honest labor, and other lessons of a steadying influence which tend to promote and develop an upright and desirable citizenry.” Any teacher reading this, is probably wondering why parents are not also required to do the same?
With the above statutes in mind, last week I became concerned when I read the proposed civic readiness definition presented to the State Board of Education by their Chief Academic Officer and his Social Studies Education specialist. As Chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, I thought it my duty to address the board, to express my concerns on the proposed civic definition: that it did not adequately include all of the dictates of existing state law. The board invited me to do so at their work session last Thursday and their board meeting Friday.
First off, it did not include the word, “America”: The civil rights and duties of citizenship in the United States of America differ greatly from those in countries such as communist China or the socialist based countries of the European Union. It is a privilege to be an American citizen, the civil rights and duties inherent in being one, or an immigrant wishing to become one, should be rightly presented as solely American.
Second, it only mentioned history in the generic context of shaping the present, there was no mention of America’s history of individual sacrifice, including loss of life and property in order to preserve the freedoms we share. Without the “foundational knowledge of how we, as Americans, gained and maintained our rights”, civics becomes a study of “my rights without duty” in lieu of the correct “our rights guaranteed by responsibility of duty”.
Third, the language in the Civic Skills section of the document included unnecessary divisive politically charged jargon (community organizing and collective action) that could better be said by words such as community involvement and ability to work with others.
The Post-World War II Americanism statutes do need to be brought up to date. For example, we need to eliminate unconstitutional language stating that educators shall be charged with a criminal act if they do not follow present statutes (they can still be fired). At present, there is proposed legislation presented by Senators Brasch and Krist in the Education Committee addressing the Americanism statutes. Both senators, as a gauge to see if students are learning the basics of American civics, include in their bills a requirement that high school students shall take the 100 question civics portion of the U.S. Immigration Service’s Citizenship Naturalization Exam. I agree, it is not unreasonable to expect our children to be as well-versed in citizenship as proud new immigrant citizens are. At present, the continued downward trend of voter turnout for elections by each new generation would indicate we are failing our children when it comes to conveying to them the privilege of American citizenship and the responsibilities entailed in being so.
We are working on getting a combined version of the legislation to the floor of the Legislature for debate this year.
The State Board of Education wisely decided to delay action on accepting the civic readiness definition and instructed their staff to do a rewrite. State Board of Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt and I agreed that in the future, we will work together to assure state statute and Department of Education policy are in agreement.