Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Opinion

Bob Graham: What happened to civics education in Florida?

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If you want to know what happens in government when voters are uninterested, diverted or uneducated about the skills of effective citizenship, look no further than Washington and Tallahassee.

In the nation's capital we see the president of the United States and the former director of the FBI calling each other liars. In Tallahassee the Florida Legislature adjourned among a flood of vetoes and back-room deals.

What is going on? One significant, under-the-radar reason is that since the 1970s there has been a virtual collapse in the teaching of civics. Two generations of Americans and Floridians have finished their high school education with little or no instruction in what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. They have never learned the centrality of civility and reasoned compromise in a democracy or the rights, responsibilities and skills necessary to be an effective citizen.

The good news is that Florida has been leading the nation in restoring civics to the classroom and has done it extremely well. Here's how it happened. In 2007 the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center at the University of Florida joined forces to form the Florida Joint Center on Citizenship.

A primary goal of this partnership was to persuade the governor and Florida Legislature to return civics education to Florida schools. For two years the Joint Center received little legislative interest or support. But In 2009 the effort found an ally who possessed the necessary credentials to convince the Legislature this was an urgent and worthy cause. She had experience as a state legislator, was a well-regarded Republican and was passionate about the importance of civic education: former Arizona state senator and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Not long after she spoke to a joint session of the Legislature our legislation was passed, appropriately renamed in her honor.

The law has been a success. As civics had not been taught in most Florida schools for four decades, the educational pantry was bare of prepared teachers and instructional materials. To launch the program, the Joint Center has provided in-service training to thousands of educators, developed age-appropriate instructional materials used by 5,000 teachers, and offered supplemental support, which last year provided 95,000 hours of online instruction for Florida students.

In order to ensure accountability, the Sandra Day O'Connor Act required an end-of-course exam to determine the effectiveness of the civic instruction provided.

In 2014, the first year of testing, 61 percent of Florida students enrolled in seventh-grade civics scored at or above a level of proficiency. This compared favorably to the National Assessment of Educational Progress results, also known as the nation's report card, in which only 23 percent of American eighth-grade students were deemed to be proficient in civics. NAEP is the most comparable assessment available; 2014 was the last year the exam was given. And things were even better in 2017 when 69 percent of Florida seventh-graders tested proficient or better. Students whose teachers used Joint Center instructional materials scored almost 25 percent higher than other students.

So how have the governor and Florida Legislature in their back-room deals recognized this stellar achievement? The Legislature defunded the Joint Center by $500,000 and Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the remaining $400,000 of the center's state support.

Their actions are outrageous. The very elected officials whose erratic leadership demonstrates the damage that a lack of civics education has done to our democracy have now decided to eviscerate a program that was reversing ignorance with demonstrated mastery of what is required to be an effective citizen in the arena of democracy.

While we can do little about what happened in the 2017 legislative session, there is much we can do in preparation for the 2018 Legislature. Here's my advice: Flood legislators with emails, calls and personal visits expressing your disgust with their dismantling of civics education in Florida. Partner with fellow citizens who share your outrage or join a group committed to enhanced citizenship such as the League of Women Voters — multiple voices are better than one. Engage the media. And remember these legislators' actions at the 2018 ballot box, where you can send an even stronger message.

As Edmund Burke wisely said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." When it comes to making sure our children and grandchildren have the tools to be effective citizens of our great county, the time for all good people to act is right now.

Bob Graham is a former Florida state legislator, governor and U.S. senator. He is the co-author of the recently released "America, The Owner's Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — And Win," which helps citizens build and flex their citizenship muscles to make government work for them. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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