An Indiana House committee Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a bill requiring that civics education become a required class in middle schools, a change that supporters encouraged as an early step toward improving Indiana’s lagging civic health.
House Bill 1384 also would require that a new state commission set standards for civics education in Indiana, a curriculum that supporters of the bill say is so inadequate that most adults — as well as most students — are unable to answer even the most fundamental questions about American government such as identifying its three branches.
In addition to forming a 15-member Indiana Civic Education Commission that includes teachers and businesspeople as well as state officials, the bill would require that students in all public, charter and state-accredited non-public schools be required to complete a semester of civics education in grade 6, 7 or 8.
The House Education Committee, which heard testimony for the bill in a hearing Jan. 27, endorsed the bill for passage in a 13-0 vote Wednesday afternoon. It is now eligible for consideration by the full House.
“It’s a bill that I’m very passionate about,” said the bill’s primary author, state Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, a former school superintendent who taught U.S. government to high school students, in urging its passage by the committee in the earlier hearing.
But teaching students about government in 12th grade, he added, is “too little too late.”
Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute and a co-author of the bill, agreed.
“I think it’s so important to catch them at a middle school level when they’re still paying attention rather than in high school when they’re just checking a box (to graduate),” Pfaff, a high school math teacher, said in the hearing.
Among those testifying in support of the bill was Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation which in 2020 convened the Civic Education Task Force chaired by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch. The formation of the task force was a recommendation from the 2019 Civic Health Index which found that Indiana ranks low among states on several key measures of civic health including voter turnout.
“The quality and quantity of students’ civic learning opportunities correlate with their civic knowledge and skills,” Dunlap said. “The more knowledgeable and confident a person is in their own civic competencies and skills, the more likely they are to vote regularly, participate in a range of civic engagement opportunities and activities and believe that their government is a source of good and problem-solving.”
Dr. Elizabeth Bennion, professor of political science at IU South Bend, agreed, saying that the earlier students are taught and engage in civics, the more likely they are to get involved in politics at a local level.
“The reason it is important at the junior-high level is what will predict future political engagement is past engagement. And we know that civic identity is critical in affecting behavior,” Bennion said in an interview since the hearing.
Indiana ranks among the bottom 15 states for voter registration and turnout and has for almost a decade.
Bill Moreau, co-founder and president of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation and with Dunlap a co-contributor to the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index, noted in an interview that although Indiana saw an increase in voter turnout in 2020, our state is still likely to end up lower than it was before because most other states saw higher increases.
“There’s hard data that shows Indiana is in the midst of a slow-motion civic health crisis,” said Moreau, whose foundation operates indianacitizen.org as a news and information platform focused on Indiana’s civic health.
Part of the reason, Dunlap said, is the lack of voter interest, which can be traced back to the lack of support for civic education. He noted a statistic from the Marketplace organization that nationally $54 is spent per child in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education while only 5 cents is spent per child on civics education.
Helen McKinney, a sophomore at Herron High School in Indianapolis, said the bill would allow all Hoosier students to enjoy the benefits that she realized by participating in “We the People,” a program focused on building students knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
Civics education, she testified at the committee hearing, “allows students to understand how our civics system works and how to participate in America’s civil society and democracy. As future middle school students go through the civics curriculum described in this bill, they will hopefully develop an interest in civics as I did. They will understand the importance of voting, jury duty and even just testifying for a bill in state government.” –– The Indiana Citizen
Taylor Dixon contributed reporting. She is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.