We the People program will use additional state funding to create civics ‘class in a box’

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

July 14, 2023

A boost in funding for Indiana’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program, which teaches elementary, middle and high school students about American constitutional democracy, will also help support the state’s new sixth grade civics class, likely benefitting even more young Hoosiers.

For about a decade, We the People , which is administered in the state by the Indiana Bar Foundation, has received a yearly appropriation of $300,000 from the state. The 2023-2025 biennial budget, signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in May, increased the funding to $500,000 annually.

Funding from the state “has enabled us to be a national leader,” Charles Dunlap, president and CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, said. “It’s enabled us to have stability and growth in the program and do some great things.”

 The bar foundation had sought the $200,000 in additional funding from the legislature, according to Dunlap. Along with growing the program and covering rising overhead costs, more money was needed to support the coming middle school civics curriculum.

Starting with the 2024 spring semester, all sixth grade students in Indiana will be taught a one-semester course in civics. House Enrolled Act 1384, passed in 2021 with minimal opposition, established the requirement for middle schools to teach civics.

The Indiana State Board of Education approved the academic standards for the civics course in June of 2022.

Dunlap said the bar foundation has enlisted educators who teach the We the People program in their schools to develop a “class in a box” based on the program’s instructional materials. Sixth grade teachers will be able to open the box and have everything to teach the civic course including handouts, lesson plans, videos, PowerPoint presentations and assessments.

“That’s our main focus is to be able to get them the resources they need,” Dunlap said. “Will every teacher in Indiana teaching the sixth grade civics class be ready Jan. 1? I’m not sure that that’s the case. But we’re going to do everything we can to give them the tools and resources so that they can hopefully get there quickly.”

 ‘Brings civics to life’

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools, is a fan of the We the People program. In her former position as superintendent of Brown County Schools, she saw the impact the activity had on the entire student body.

“It became cool to be smart about civics which is really extraordinary to see in eighth graders,” Hammack said.

The We the People program includes a curriculum that teaches students about the history of American democracy and how the values and principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have shaped the nation’s government and institutions.

Students then showcase what they have learned in the We the People competitions which simulate a congressional hearing. The teams of students sit before a panel of judges and answer open-ended questions that require them to apply their knowledge of such things as the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights.

Every year, the bar foundation hosts regional and state We the People competitions with the winners going to Washington, D.C., to compete the national contest.  More than 700 middle and high school students from across Indiana came to Indianapolis in December 2022 to participate in the state competition.

 At the national level, Indiana high school teams have regularly placed in the top 10, including a second place finish by Fishers High School in 2022. Brown County Junior High School and Fishers Junior High School have both won the national middle school invitational.

Hammack said the program gets the students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they wrestle with constitutional issues and constitutional law. The students learn to use evidence to support their views and to respectively debate with their colleagues.

Saying the program inspires students, Hammack believes the input from the We the People curriculum will benefit the new civics class. The new sixth grade civics standards focus on teaching students about the foundations of constitutional government, the functions of the three branches of government including how they balance power, and the rule of citizens.

“For the students, it brings civics to life in a way that the standards themselves might be perceived by students as boring,” Hammack said. “But because of the way in which (the We the People program) is constructed and is organized, the students are deeply engaged and are passionate about their perspective and ideology and learning more.”

A need for civics education

Retired Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, was the first to advocate for placing We the People in the state budget. The program has been included ever since drawing support from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

 Séamus Boyce, partner at Kroger Gardis Regas in Indianapolis, serves as legislative counsel for the bar foundation and worked to secure more funding for the We the People program during the General Assembly’s 2023 session. He attributed the bipartisan support to a consensus among legislators that Hoosiers must have a basic understanding of how government works.

“We hear a lot of frustration from Indiana General Assembly legislators about how constituents often don’t even know the difference between the U.S. Congress and Indiana General Assembly” Boyce wrote in an email. “While, of course, there is a commitment to the most fundamentals of learning like reading and math, our elected officials also see the value in programs like We the People as an engaging way to provide both content and a lifelong passion for civics.”

The state appropriation is used by the bar foundation to fund the We the People competitions in the state, provide course materials and offer the annual summer institute free to teachers which encompasses both an in-depth study of civics and strategies for instructing students. Dunlap said the additional money will cover those things along with the development of the sixth grade civics curriculum based on We the People and training sessions for teachers.

When looking at the launch of the new civics class, Dunlap sees opportunities.

Indiana sixth graders “are getting time in the classroom now to dig into this in a really in-depth way that just wasn’t possible before,” Dunlap said. “And as an earlier age. Sixth graders are certainly able to understand and engage with this material. The earlier you get it to students, the better, the more effective and the more long-lasting and the more it takes hold.”

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