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As a social studies teacher at Amity Middle School, it falls on Jeff Geissler to teach students the importance of voting, paying taxes and how their government works.

Now in his fourth year teaching social studies, Geissler recalls taking a training offered by the Classroom Law Project on civic education. During a week-long training, Geissler spent long days learning about the Greek roots of democracy, the American Revolution, the genesis of the Constitution and debates over the founding document.

He overcame his students’ “so what?” reaction by linking civics to conflicts in social life, questions over how rights are applied and conversations they might have with their family at dinner.

When his students learned about the number of adults who don’t vote, “They were aghast and disappointed in the adults,” he recalled.

Geissler said that civics education like this should be in every classroom. But it’s not. In recent decades, civics has fallen to the wayside in classrooms in Oregon and across the country. Currently, there is no requirement for students to study civics in Oregon schools.

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Research shows that students who are taught civics are more likely to vote and be engaged in their communities. Last year, leaders of the College Board, which administers the SAT exam, said that understanding the U.S. Constitution was as important as computer science.

At least 31 state legislatures proposed 115 bills or resolutions aimed at bolstering civics in 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But legislative attempts in Oregon to require students to study civics to graduate have failed in recent years

For now, there are nonprofits working to fill in the gaps.

“It is taught, but it is not taught to all of our students,” said Erin Esparza, executive director of the Classroom Law Project, a civic education nonprofit.

After being appointed earlier this year to fill out the term of the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, Bev Clarno has continued and expanded civic education initiatives launched by her predecessor.

During her nearly 20 years serving in the Oregon Legislature, Clarno recalled getting letters from people seeking help on federal issues. Some were struggling with a government issue and didn’t know who to turn to.

She remembered the civic education she received at Redmond High School.

“I think it’s something that lasts all your life,” she said.

However, both face challenges in reaching all parts of the state.

‘We’ve got to make good citizens’

Americans are becoming increasingly unaware of the basic functions of government.

A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26% of Americans could name all three branches of government. Only 17% of Americans trust the government according to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2019.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress's most recent report card released in 2015 found that 77% of students scored below proficient in civics and less than half of 8th graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.

“What's going on in today's politics, we don't have people that understand how their government is supposed to function,” said state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth. “Now we don't have people who understand that it's their responsibility to maintain a republic.”

Evans attributed the decline in civic education in Oregon classrooms to a series of tax measures meant to curb the increase in property taxes as well as the decline in timber revenue around the late 1970s and 1908s. With less revenue, he said schools had to get “back to basics.”

Evans has unsuccessfully introduced legislation three times to require students to study civics in order to graduate, most recently in 2019. He said that the Oregon Education Association (which didn’t return a request for comment) opposed the bill over concerns of creating an unfunded mandate.

He said it makes sense that the state’s educational system has given more support to reading, writing and math as standardized testing has become increasingly common. But he said schools should teach civics, which he said is just as critical.

“We have got to move away from just deciding how we’re going to make good workers for the 21st century,” said Evans, who won’t reintroduce the bill for February’s short session. “We’ve got to make good citizens.”

‘Roles that they need to take on as grownups’

Under Evans’ bill, school districts could allow students to participate in an existing civics education program, such as the YMCA Youth in Government, to meet the requirement.

While Oregon’s educational system has shifted, these programs have continued to operate. YMCA Youth in Government has operated in Oregon since the 1940s where students participate in a mock legislative process where they research and debate issues before casting votes.

Marisa Fink, the program’s state director, said that YMCA Youth in Government is active in about a dozen high schools in the Salem and Portland areas. She said it costs students $200 to attend the three-day event held in February in Salem and that raising funds to attend can be a barrier. 

“We are really starting to focus on how to expand statewide in rural areas,” said Fink.

The program will be looking to foundations for funding to get more students in the program. But she said some schools are just not that interested in civic education.

Esparza said civics education should teach skills meant to help students work collaboratively. In addition to professional development for teachers, the Classroom Law Project also offers programs such as high school mock trials or simulated congressional hearings. It also offers another program where students identify a community problem and research a way to solve it.

“It requires them to try on the roles that they need to take on as grownups,” she said. At the end of the program, she said students are amazed that an adult actually listened to them.

She pointed to the Oregon Department of Education’s most recent annual report card, which shows social sciences (including civics) accounts for just 16% of course offerings in schools. But she said that there are other ways to integrate civics into the curriculum. She mentioned a 5th-grade teacher whose students put Goldilocks on trial.

Although the group’s programs reach 1,300 teachers and 103,000 students each year, Esparza said her group is looking into funding to reach schools that serve communities of color or rural areas.

Secretary of state’s response

In May, Clarno appointed Mary Beth Herkert, the state’s longtime archivist, as her office’s full-time director of civic education.

Herkert said previously the job had been a part-time responsibility assigned to a member of the secretary’s staff. She’s carried on the work of Richardson who brought the Kid Governor program to Oregon in 2018. In the program, 5th graders identify a plan to solve a community issue and runs statewide for a one-year term. Herkert said that over 60 schools participated this year.

She said she’s planning on starting more programs. She traveled to New York to visit a school that had implemented a program where students read about historical events and then make and defend decisions about what they would have done in that situation.

Herkert is also planning to develop a program for adults that could involve classes or trivia night.

“If you asked the average voter how the initiative or referendum process works, they probably don’t know but we vote on them every election,” she said.

Raaga Mandala, who attends Beaverton’s Jacob Wismer Elementary School, will be sworn in as Oregon’s next kid governor in January after she campaigned on a platform of addressing homelessness. She said that the program was the first time she was taught about government. She also learned another lesson.

“I learned there are a lot of problems in our community that kids or anyone could help make a dent in,” she said.

Contact reporter JakeThomas at 503-575-1251 or jake@salemreporter.com or @jakethomas2009.