Ron DeSantis and others want to put the Constitution 'back' in Florida schools. It's already there.

Dawn Brown, a civics teacher at Crews Lake Middle School, leads students in a discussion about the English Bill of Rights and other documents that laid the foundation for the U.S. Constitution. Florida has required the course since 2012. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK   |   Times]
Dawn Brown, a civics teacher at Crews Lake Middle School, leads students in a discussion about the English Bill of Rights and other documents that laid the foundation for the U.S. Constitution. Florida has required the course since 2012. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]
Published Sept. 28, 2018

Dawn Brown cued up a Discovery video about the 1689 English Bill of Rights, and told her seventh-grade civics students to pay close attention to the details.

"This is where the ideas for our Bill of Rights came from," Brown said, referring to the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The students at Crews Lake Middle in Pasco County had been studying the documents that undergird America's governmental philosophy, with plans to get into some of the key principles — due process, separation of powers, natural rights — the following week.

"I feel like the things we're learning are building up to when we learn the Constitution," said Gabby Trowell, 13.

It's a critical set of lessons, said Amelia Anusbigian, 12.

If they don't learn it, she said, "we won't know what is going on when we are adults, how our government works, and we will probably make bad choices."

For just that reason, civics education has been required in Florida law since adoption of the 2010 Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act. State lawmakers extended the civics mandate into colleges and universities in 2017.

A key expectation of that college-level civic literacy: "An understanding of the United States Constitution and its application."

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Still, some politicians — primarily from the Republican side — have spent the current campaign cycle arguing that Florida schools need more Constitution.

Former state Senate president Don Gaetz pushed to amend the state Constitution to embed civic literacy education within it. The Florida Supreme Court recently removed that proposal, which was attached to two other loosely related education issues, from the November ballot.

Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has made the topic a key plank of his education platform. He wants to "ensure that the Constitution is put back into the classroom."

It's a page from the national conservative playbook, in which groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council call for a "civic literacy act." They argue that too many youths lack an understanding of our nation's fundamentals.

Just 23 percent of eighth-graders scored at "proficient" in civics on the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card."

But the "good news," as former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham put it in a recent editorial, has been Florida leading the way in filling the gap. Seventy-one percent of the more than 200,000 students who took the state civics end-of-course exam last spring passed it. That's 10 percentage points better than five years ago.

Nearly half of the benchmarks for that test refer to the U.S. Constitution, and the structure and function of American government.

They include such concepts as identifying "how the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation led to the writing of the Constitution," and analyzing the impact of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th amendments on minority groups' participation in the American political process.

Florida students also must take U.S. history — which has its own end-of-course exam — to graduate. It includes lessons on civil rights granted in the Constitution, among other standards. The U.S. government course offered in high schools provides another avenue for such lessons.

All of which has educators wondering why anybody might think the Constitution needs to be restored to classrooms.

It's already there.

"We would direct them to the state standards so they can read for themselves what the students are being asked to do with it," said Matthew Blum, Pinellas County high school social studies specialist.

The information and language can be very complex, noted Michelle Anderson, the K-8 social studies specialist for Pinellas schools. That's why schools also provide reading and literacy strategies for teachers to use.

To ensure the materials are continually improving, Anderson added, top educators from across Florida help review and revise all the test items. At the end of the day, she said, educators and policy makers alike have publicly agreed that Florida — one of just 17 states to include civics in its education accountability system — is a national leader in the subject.

Stephen Lawson, communications director for the DeSantis campaign, said DeSantis acknowledged the rules already on Florida's books.

"What Ron wants to do is strengthen the program that is there, by putting more of an emphasis on the Constitution and the civics process," Lawson said.

Having the lessons in a seventh-grade civics class or a high school history course is positive, he said. But DeSantis wants the concepts incorporated into more classrooms, perhaps at an even earlier age.

"Just generally, he wants to see that expanded," Lawson said.

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Gaetz, who aimed to add civic literacy education to the state Constitution, said the stakes are high. If students don't learn about the fundamentals of the nation's governance, he said, the system can deteriorate.

He pointed to many national surveys indicating that students aren't close to where they should be. And he suggested that the best way to guarantee the ideas don't become subjected to the whims of lawmakers is to include it as a self-evident truth within the state's governing document — a civics lesson in itself.

Brown, the Pasco County civics teacher, said she and her colleagues work daily not just to tell students about civics, but to make it accessible. They use events such as court cases and elections to infuse issues with details the students can relate to, she said, not just treating them as dry words on dusty documents.

Students in Brown's class said they believed they were getting what they needed. They called civics one of their favorite classes in school, saying it provides information everyone should know.

"The Constitution wouldn't be the same without John Locke," said Maddie Altschuler, 12, referring to the 17th century English philosopher who spoke of man's natural freedoms.

"We were born with them and not given them," she said, noting the idea was incorporated into the Constitution. "People should have rights."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.