Have Florida teens learn civics in action, state lawmakers say

The bipartisan bill seeks to encourage civic literacy projects in high schools.
JAMES BORCHUCK  |  TimesCandidate yard signs line the sidewalk outside the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library as people head to the Tampa polling station to cast their ballots on election day Tuesday, November 6, 2018.
JAMES BORCHUCK | TimesCandidate yard signs line the sidewalk outside the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library as people head to the Tampa polling station to cast their ballots on election day Tuesday, November 6, 2018.
Published February 22

Since before his election, Gov. Ron DeSantis has spoken of his desire to improve Floridians’ understanding of their civic rights and responsibilities.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers aims to make his goal a reality.

But they don’t seek to do so simply by mandating another course required for high school graduation. Instead, they propose a plan to get students actively involved in the process through a high school U.S. government and civic engagement half-credit course that includes a nonpartisan community project.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed identical bills Friday (HB 1037 / SB 1316) after consulting social studies experts in the Pinellas County school district and the UCF Lou Frey Institute. They also have met with DeSantis’ staff in preparing the measure.

“I have learned it’s like any other course. The best way students learn is by doing,” Diamond explained. “It’s this project-based learning where we need to go.”

He noted that, while growing up, his parents were involved in many civic and community organizations. They would come home from meetings and discuss the subjects and the possible solutions.

Too many children don’t have similar experiences, Diamond said. Their families don’t participate in groups, attend community meetings, work with neighbors to solve common problems, or even know how to do that, he said. Voting is another thing altogether.

The bill — one of a handful focused on promoting civics — would give students a special seal on their diploma for the successful completion of the civic engagement course. It would encourage schools to offer the program by offering a boost in the state grading system for those that perform well in this area, as well as creating a Democracy School designation that would come with a multiplier in the grading formula.

Yes, civics already is a middle school requirement where students have performed increasingly better, Diamond acknowledged, and it has been added to college expectations.

But “I don’t think we’ve given this issue really the attention it deserves,” he said.

The fact that DeSantis included the idea in his campaign, mentioned it in his inaugural address and reiterated it in a recent executive order on standards, could provide the impetus to doing something positive in this area, Diamond suggested.

“He’s 100 percent right,” Diamond said. “But how do we actually do it? The best way to accomplish it is to provide structure and give students opportunities. ... We’re all working, I think, in good faith to move it forward. Regardless of our party, these are real issues.”

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