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  1. Opinion

We the People program that helped create informed citizens is cut

Sen. Anitere Flores, far left, along with students from Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, who came in seventh in this year’s national competition on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Flores was a national champion in 1994.
Published May 12, 2012

America needs more citizens. Not more lawyers. Not more politicians. Not more lobbyists. America needs more people informed about current events and thinking critically about issues who vote based on depth of knowledge, not impulse. Citizens.

But a national civics program that has proven to be an antidote to the civic illiteracy and disengagement of young people has lost its $15 million in federal funding. We the People: The Citizen & The Constitution, a program established by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education in 1987, was de-funded this year with little hope of renewed funding in 2013.

The loss of money has nothing to do with the program's merit, which has touched more than 30 million students and 90,000 teachers. The money disappeared when it was labeled an earmark, and earmarks became a political third rail. Congress can no longer distinguish between a bridge to nowhere and an investment in the development of an informed citizenry.

The curriculum for We the People is as close to educational magic as it comes. Students are exposed to a full course of study that delves into the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the nation's founding ideas. They learn how the Constitution and Bill of Rights came to be and how ever since our government has been shaped by the courts, the law and the polity.

The course's textbook brings history to life, demonstrating how the very principles with which the nation's founders grappled are still part of today's raging political debates. Students are challenged to exercise their critical thinking muscle — perhaps the most under-utilized part of the American high schooler's brain.

Many students then apply this learning to an annual competition where they are questioned by judges during a simulated congressional hearing. Contests take place at the congressional district, state and national level. And the entire class must compete as a single team, combining academically stronger students with those who struggle.

As a judge for this program since 1990, I can tell you of the amazing displays of clear, informed thinking. This year, the students I judged were asked to speak extemporaneously about how and why federalism was established and to apply federalist concepts to today's arguments over health care reform. They rocked.

The program's impact stays with students throughout their lives. Just ask Florida state Sen. Anitere Flores, who describes her participation in high school as "a life-transforming experience." Flores, a Cuban American and influential Republican lawmaker, said "the whole program exemplifies what being an American is all about."

In 1994, Flores was part of a team from the all-girls Catholic Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami that won the national competition in Washington. Rosalie Heffernan was their remarkable teacher, who in 1994 and still to this day educates a new group of students to that rarefied level nearly every year.

Coming full circle, Flores was a judge at the national competition this year. (Lincoln High School of Portland, Ore., won and Heffernan's Florida team came in seventh.) Flores is also dismayed by the program's loss of funding and plans to "educate members of Congress" on why it should be restored. I hope her fellow Republicans will listen. A plan proposed in the House to transform civics funding into competitive grants is a poor substitute for an established national program.

Without federal funding, the future of the We the People program looks bleak. Money for textbooks, program coordinators and summer teacher training institutes is gone. Florida alone lost more than $400,000 worth of We the People program investments this year.

The only reason there was a national competition at all is that across the country students, parents and schools raised $3 million. But that is not sustainable. Three states had no representation at nationals because they couldn't raise the money: Oklahoma, Vermont and North Dakota. Pretty soon what's left of the program will be divided into schools rich enough to afford it and those that aren't.

Julie Conrady, an AP government teacher at Norman High School in Oklahoma, said her students were "devastated, absolutely devastated" to learn that they were not going to Washington because there was no way to raise the more than $36,000 needed.

Think about what is spent for student athletic competition at the state and national level. How is it possible that there's no money for an academic program that prepares students to be educated voters? To borrow an advertising slogan: The value of having more informed citizens? Priceless.

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