Sarah Bernt: Support action civics for a stronger democracy

Local community leaders and politicians participate in a forum to encourage young voters to be more politically and civically involved at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield in September 2016.

BOSTON — "Education makes a people easy to lead but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave." This quote by Henry Peter Brougham was painted on a mural in my high school. It served as a reminder that school should have a purpose beyond just preparing us for college and careers. A healthy democracy relies on public schools to produce a well informed citizenry.

Unfortunately, in many schools the commitment to civic education is as decorative as that mural. As administrators are forced by standardized testing to prioritize reading and math, civics classes are more likely to fall by the wayside. According to a 2015 survey of Massachusetts district superintendents, 59.5 percent of school districts have an "insufficient" level of civic learning. As with any subject, addressing this knowledge deficit in schools will require rethinking not just whether civics is taught, but how it's taught.

Many subjects are taught in an experiential way, based on the understanding that children learn better by doing than by rote memorization. Students learn math by solving math problems, science is taught with the aid of lab experiments and foreign languages are actually spoken in class. But to the extent that civics is taught in schools — whether as its own course or as part of a traditional social studies class — students are usually expected to learn by rote memorization from a textbook.

"Action civics" refers to the type of curriculum in which students are expected to roll up their sleeves and advocate for change in their communities. Rather than simply reading about how a bill becomes a law, students might research a bill and lobby their state representative to help get it passed. Instead of just being told about the executive branch, they might pressure the mayor to improve public services. The possibilities are endless, but what all good action projects have in common is that they are student driven. Data from the National Action Civics Collaborative shows that students who take these types of project-based classes have dramatic increases in their civic skills and self-efficacy.


In November of 2018, "An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement" was signed into Massachusetts law. This will require public schools to provide an action civics education to their students. It is a victory for all students in Massachusetts — especially low income students and students of color, who are less likely than their white and affluent counterparts to have interactive components to their social studies classes.

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The fight for action civics is not over. The new law established a Civics Project Trust Fund in order to help schools implement the new action civics requirements. But the Fund is really an empty vessel until the state government allocates resources for it. Unfortunately, Governor Baker's recently released FY20 proposed operating budget provides no money for civics education. Without resources to accompany the new action civics requirements, the law amounts to an unfunded mandate on our public schools. An act that was intended to improve access to civic education will end up making unreasonable demands of schools that are already stretched too thin.

Now that the governor has released his proposed budget, the House and Senate will release their own. The three proposed budgets will need to be reconciled, which means that the Civics Project Trust Fund can be included in the final budget even though the governor didn't include it in his initial proposal. The Fund would need $1.5 million to be effective, which is equivalent to around 0.00004% of last year's operating budget. As an investment in our commonwealth's future civic leaders, it is well worth the price tag.

The fate of civics funding is up to the Legislature, which means it's up to us. If you believe that youths deserve a civics education that teaches them how to use their voices, you can start by using yours. Call your state representative and state senator, and tell them to make the Civics Project Trust Fund a priority in the FY20 budget.

Sarah Bernt is a democracy coach for Generation Citizen, teaching action civics to Boston Public School students. She graduated from Bard College at Simon's Rock in 2015.