Here’s how we should teach civics to Florida students | Column
Florida must continue to invest and re-invest in the future owners and operators of our great democratic experiment.
The manuscript of Florida's constitution from 1885. The current version was revised and ratified in 1968.
The manuscript of Florida's constitution from 1885. The current version was revised and ratified in 1968. [ Florida Memory ]
Published Jan. 30, 2020

The impeachment process in Washington — regardless of whether it results in acquittal or guilt for the president — offers us an unanticipated opportunity: a teachable moment for all Americans, an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to active self-government, a “civics moment.”

Florida, which has made important strides in the last decade in expanding practical civics training from high school to middle school and college, is well poised to seize this unusual occasion by passing a new bill in the current legislative session in Tallahassee.

And it is not a moment too soon, because we Americans are, on average, poorly prepared to participate actively the essential public issues that impact our lives. Less than 40% of adults nationwide can name the three branches of government (making meaningful analysis of an impeachment trial difficult), reports the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the United States trails most developed, democratic countries in our rate of voter turnout, according the Pew Research Center.

Ben Diamond
Ben Diamond

Florida ranks 48th among the states in the percentage of people who belong to a service or civic group, 49th in the number of people who cast votes in local elections and 50th in the percentage who have attended a public meeting.

These realities reflect that fact that instruction in civics specifically has rarely been a priority, traditionally relegated to portions of long mandatory high school courses in history, government, and other social studies.

Andy McLeod
Andy McLeod

Florida, however, is leading a national movement to better prepare individuals to be better prepared, more active citizens. In 2010, the Florida Legislature unanimously adopted the strongest civic education legislation in the nation -- the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act -- requiring middle school students to complete a semester-long course on civics solely. And three years ago, the Legislature enacted a measure necessitating that college students demonstrate competency in U.S. government and history.

The results from this expansion of civics education are encouraging. In 2018, 71% of Florida middle school students passed the end of course assessment, and 45% were deemed proficient in civics -- more than twice the national rate.

Now it is time for Florida to take another step by complementing the increased focus on classroom instruction with community-based, experiential learning about public procedures, the daily work of government, and the roles of private, nonprofit organizations.

HB 581, currently under consideration in the State House and Senate, is a bipartisan proposal that would allow high schools to include a nonpartisan civic literacy project in their existing government curriculum. Students would formally identify an issue or problem in their community, research it from multiple perspectives, and develop strategies to address it. The bill enables students to apply in the real world what has been taught in the classroom.

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Students who successfully complete a civics project would be eligible to receive community service hours that apply toward Bright Futures Scholarship requirements. Schools that integrate these projects into their curriculum and demonstrate a commitment to high-quality civics instruction would be recognized for their efforts.

The rancor and partisanship that characterizes our national politics should compel us to rededicate ourselves to participating in important public matters in our neighborhoods, at the county courthouse, in Tallahassee, and in Washington.

Florida must continue to invest and re-invest in the future owners and operators of our great democratic experiment.

As Benjamin Franklin warned, ours is a republic, if we can keep it.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, is a co-sponsor of HB 581 with Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami. (Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is the Senate sponsor.) Andy McLeod, a former member of the Florida Humanities Council board of directors, is host of “Historic Matters,” a podcast on history and civics.