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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

League of Women Voters Washington: Civics education is crucial to making our democracy work

By Beverly Austin League of Women Voters Washington

Recent events in our country have raised serious concerns about the strength of our democratic system of government, which demands an informed electorate engaged in its civic responsibilities. We are gravely concerned about the lack of understanding of the electoral process as well as the lack of trust in free elections in our country.

Education based on truth is essential to the future of American democracy and to the security of our nation, in protecting us from attack by outside and inside forces. Many organizations across the country have raised a red flag concerning the lack of civic education offered in K-12 schools. A recent webinar featuring current and former members of the United States military addressed this vital issue. While military commanders require their troops to be knowledgeable about American government, they are deeply concerned about reports from trusted sources such as the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation which indicate a lack of civic knowledge among American citizens

Although American history has been a high school requirement in school districts nationwide, a stand-alone civics or government course was not uniformly required across all 50 states. It has been suggested that for about 30 years, civics education was not uniformly taught in our country. The result of that lapse is a significant percentage of American citizens who do not understand how their government works at local, state, tribal and federal levels. Voters who are uninformed become misinformed and vulnerable to manipulation based upon disinformation.

For many years, Washington state has understood the critical aspect of educating our youth regarding American government. To reinforce its importance, legislation was passed to require a stand-alone civics course for high school graduation. The Civic Learning Council worked with the League of Women Voters of Washington along with other organizations to promote this legislation. Civic education is now required in elementary and middle schools. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has put great effort to establishing social study standards, indicating best teaching practices, and offering instructional resources. Two versions of “The State We’re In: Washington,” written for grades 3-5 and 6-12, are available online. The secretary of state’s office provides resources on its website including a free program developed by iCivics.

The question remains regarding all of those Americans who missed out on civic education or who have forgotten what they had learned. How do we reach, teach and enable them to be well-informed citizens? On Jan.10, in the Sunday edition of The Spokesman-Review, editor Rob Curley announced a program to address this challenge. The paper will establish a weekly study group giving citizens an opportunity to learn about their own government.

Other media groups should climb aboard this train promoting civic education. Courses designed for adults could be offered at libraries, community centers and community colleges. We have an opportunity to make a difference in these disturbing times. Making democracy work for everyone depends on it.

Beverly Austin, MSW, is the Civic Education Chair of the League of Women Voters Washington.

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