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Carlson: New state civics initiative a step in right direction

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In January, I spent some time on this page lamenting the sad state of civics education in our country, so it was reassuring to follow a bill through the recent legislative session that would address the civics deficit in Louisiana.

State lawmakers supported Sen. Page Cortez’s Senate Bill 34, which will require passage of a tough civics test to pass the required high school civics class.  According to the legislation, students must answer 60 out of 100 questions correctly on a test identical to the civics section of the test administered by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.  That section is the history and government portion of the citizenship test.

Students will be permitted to take the test as many times as necessary to pass it.

Times-Picayune writer Emily Lane covered the hearing on the civics bill and noted convincing reasons for passage of this bill.  She recalled testimony offered last month at the state capitol that provided a chilling statistic:  “less than 5 percent of American high school students in two states could correctly answer at least 60 percent out of 100 basic questions about U.S. civics … the average score of immigrants on the test is higher than 90 percent.”

Lane also pointed to Secretary of State Tom Schedler as a strong supporter of the civics education initiative:  “The ‘most unsatisfying’ aspect of being secretary of state is to see the continuing decline of voter participation.  In a recent election in East Baton Rouge Parish, for example, when two propositions were on the ballot, 4 percent of voters showed up.  One of those proposals raised taxes.”

Louisiana follows several other states in joining a national initiative led by the Joe Foss Institute that calls for using the same test that immigrants must pass to test the civic knowledge of our high school students.  The point is to increase their basic understanding of our government in the hope that these young citizens will become more engaged.

And more engagement at every level of our government is crucial if we care to ensure the preservation of our American republic.

Just observing citizen involvement and understanding at the local level often leaves me concerned for the concept of participatory governing.  Recently, at a Bossier City Council meeting, a member of the community complained about a lack of notice/information about city meetings related to the redevelopment of Old Bossier.

She was referring to actual City Council meetings; notice of these meetings is published – but she was apparently unaware that these bi-weekly meetings even occur.

My January column on the subject of citizenship noted that recent statistics demonstrate a decline in knowledge about our federal and local governmental systems that included such worrisome revelations like 64 percent of Americans can’t name the three branches of our government.

It is certainly hoped that the state legislature’s endorsement of Sen. Cortez’s bill will improve the civic standing of Louisiana high school students as they become more acquainted of the work and people involved in their various governments.

In the meantime, I will be looking up Sonja Bailes, Bossier Parish Schools press liaison, who earlier this year offered me the opportunity to see how civics education is offered at Greenacres Middle School.  I didn’t take time to do so – but will take her up on the offer as the new school year begins.  I suspect I will find that Bossier Parish students are far better informed that many of their contemporaries from other parishes/states.

Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT. She may be reached at martycarlson1218@gmail.com