MATT WILSON calls it an example of “civics in action.”
After Gov. Maura Healey vetoed $1 million from the budget appropriation for a fund dedicated to expanding civics education in the state, a coalition of nonprofits, educators, and other groups focused on civics education sprang into action, meeting with legislative leaders and urging lawmakers to restore the funding.
Last week, the Senate followed the House lead and overrode Healey’s veto. It means the state’s Civics Education Trust Fund, first established in 2018, will see an infusion of $2.5 million this year, a $500,000 bump from last year’s $2 million appropriation.
“It really confirms for us the longtime support of civics education that legislators have shown over the last five years,” said Wilson, advocacy director for the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition.
The money has been used to support professional development training for teachers and the development of curriculum materials for civics instruction, including a new “investigating history” curriculum for third to seventh grade classrooms. Nearly $3 million has been directed to lower-income districts, as called for in the legislation establishing the state fund.
The effort to boost civic education comes as state officials take moves toward living up to a key provision of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which called for a robust US history curriculum – and assessment. While the state incorporated testing of math, English, and science into the MCAS system, with passage of 10th grade tests in the subjects required for high school graduation, the history requirement was pushed to the sidelines.
The state was on track to institute a history/social science graduation requirement for the class of 2012, but the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in 2009 to put it on hold at the urging of state officials who said districts did not have adequate resources to develop the curriculum and supports needed for students to tackle the subject.
The focus on math, English, and science testing has led social science and civics education to get “pushed out of the curriculum,” said Wilson, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Discovering Justice, which runs programs exposing students to the workings of the justice system.
The override votes to restore the full funding for the state civics education fund was “in keeping with the intent of the 2018 law,” said Rep. Andy Vargas, who led the override effort in the House. For Vargas, the civic education push isn’t just a priority issue of his work in the Legislature, it’s the basis for his involvement in politics.
As a 16-year-old student at Haverhill High School more than a decade ago, he was a member of a student group called Teens Leading the Way that identified civic education as an important issue. They were part of the initial lobbying for the civic education trust fund, an effort that sparked Vargas’s interest in public policy and politics. Eight years later, when the bill finally passed establishing the trust fund, he was able to vote for it as a 24-year-old state rep.
“It’s been powerful to hear from teachers and students themselves about the impact the funding has had,” Vargas said.
In 2018, along with establishing the civics education trust fund, the state updated its civics education curriculum frameworks. This spring the state will pilot a civics test as part of the 8th grade MCAS, with the goal of having the new assessment fully in place for the 2025 administration of the test.
Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, said increasing students’ civic literacy is long overdue. US history “was a central piece of the original ed reform law,” he said.
He said the law’s chief architects, former senator Tom Birmingham and former rep. Mark Roosevelt, incorporated far more specific language in the law about US history than other subjects, directing, for example, that the Federalist Papers be taught in schools. “I think that was because they viewed education primarily as the wellspring of democratic citizenship,” said Gass.
With the current 10th grade MCAS in English, math, and science facing strong headwinds, including a potential ballot question that would scuttle its use as a graduation requirement, there is little talk of adding a new history test as a graduation requirement. But backers of civics education say they’re encouraged by the steps the state is taking to have the subject take a bigger place in Massachusetts classrooms.
“Especially now, at a time when our democracy is showing signs of fragility,” said Wilson, “it’s reassuring to see a commitment to this so that students are prepared with the skills and knowledge to engage in civic action.”