Florida House advances bill to create civics literacy initiative

‘Democracy is not a spectator sport,’ sponsor Rep. Ben Diamond reminds colleagues.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, presents his bill on civics education to the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Dec. 11, 2019. The legislation received unanimous bipartisan support.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, presents his bill on civics education to the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Dec. 11, 2019. The legislation received unanimous bipartisan support. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Dec. 12, 2019|Updated Dec. 12, 2019

Aiming to get Florida teens more engaged and knowledgeable about their communities and how they work, a Florida House committee has advanced a bill that would create a civic literacy practicum that students could complete as part of their U.S. history courses.

“It is often said that democracy is not a spectator sport, and for a democracy to continue to function well, it requires citizens to be effective in the skills of citizenship,” co-sponsor Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said in introducing the measure. “This bill is part of an important, continuing and bipartisan effort ... to ensure our students are learning the skill of citizenship.”

Diamond and co-sponsor Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Miami Republican, presented the measure one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated his call for enhanced civic education in the schools.

Related: Ron DeSantis wants Florida high schoolers to take exam similar to citizenship test

He suggested that the practicum program, which would be voluntary, would provide insights that strict classroom education and testing cannot.

“The best way that students can learn is by doing,” said Diamond, who presented a similar bill in the 2019 session along with Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, who again is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.

Members of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee offered strong support for the concept, which won unanimous support from the panel.

Rep. Jennifer Webb, a Gulfport Democrat, called experiential learning the “gold standard” for teaching and learning. Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat, noted how some teens in her community have worked with teachers to learn about how to change laws, with some presenting a bill in the Senate Education Committee earlier in the week.

Valdes suggested that more students could benefit from the concept of identifying a nonpartisan community problem and figuring out how to resolve it, working with government officials to accomplish an end goal.

“I believe this bill is a great idea,” she said. “It is their world that we are shaping.”

Related: Gradebook podcast: There ought to be a law - A Florida student’s civic lesson

Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, supported the legislation but cautioned against any language in it that might inadvertently create an unintended consequence. The practicum idea should not become a way for anyone to teach un-American ideals under the guise of attacking a civic concern, for instance, Fischer said.

“I’m always concerns about what the content ends up being,” he said.

Diamond assured the panel that the bill, if passed, would assign the Florida education commissioner the role of setting standards for the projects, which could help students earn community service hours toward Bright Futures scholarships.

He said the goal is to help young Floridians learn to be effective advocates for themselves and others in their communities. So many people don’t know that if they see a problem in a park, for example, they can bring it to the local parks department and discuss possible changes.

Some schools already teach this approach, he said. But many do not. By creating a program that recognizes schools and gives students credit for their efforts, he said, the state can help more students gain the knowledge and skills that DeSantis and others have contended are lacking.