After nearly three decades working in public policy, it remains a mystery the way in which some set priorities. This was reinforced recently at a hearing for the State Task Force on Civic Education. The Task Force, created by the Illinois General Assembly, is charged with reporting back to the legislature by the end of the year on the ways in which Illinois can bolster and strengthen the teaching of civics and government in our public schools.
Illinois, sadly, is one of the states that has no requirement that students take or pass a course on how government operates in order to graduate from high school.
The Task Force has developed a very thoughtful report, one that merits wide attention from the legislature, from educators across Illinois and from the public. As part of finalizing its report, the Task Force is hosting a series of public hearings, inviting advocates, educators and anyone else to share their views on the importance of civic education and the specific recommendations offered by the Task Force. This week's hearing was held at a large, suburban high school in an upper middle class area.
It was encouraging to hear advocates, educators and even students speak about the importance of civic education, and how their lives have been positively affected by involvement in civic education. One man travelled several miles simply to share his view that the State must encourage more education about history, specifically American history.
After a time, a man rose to speak, offering a mild rebuke to the Task Force for not explicitly identifying possible costs for their proposals. Since the Task Force is not suggesting a specific curriculum for civic education (though, they do suggest mandating a civics class as a requirement for high school graduation), the costs would be borne by local school districts if they adopted new, more modern civic education curricula. The speaker -- who also was a member of a school board -- wanted to know "where the money was coming from," noting that it costs thousands of dollars simply to change the text books for a single course.
I do not question that emphasizing civic education in Illinois could incur some additional costs. My question is more direct: why are we not prepared to bear that cost? Interestingly, pulling up to the high school where the hearing was held, it was difficult not to be impressive (dazzled, even) by the carefully manicured lawns on all the athletic fields surrounding the high school. Even as a former high school athlete, it is remarkable that no one ever asks how much we should spend on athletics. Instead, we often are treated to vague notions about how the athletic program serves the entire community (building "pride" we are often told) or that such programs are well-funded because they are part of a local tradition.
As for tradition, I feel a little like paraphrasing Judge Richard Posner when he questioned Wisconsin and Indiana officials supporting the bans on the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples in those states -- "Tradition? That is all you have?"
Couldn't one argue that a well-informed, well-educated generation of students might actually do more to serve the entire community? As a simple matter, studies show that students who study government and civic education in high school are far more likely to participate in elections. Yes, they vote. Every couple of years we decry the low voter turnout but then want to question the cost of a simple step that can address the problem.
It remains strange to me how we choose priorities like this without having a real, meaningful conversation. That said, it was hopeful to see the young people from one high school in particular who turned out to speak about how civic education had set them on a path to public involvement. I'd not expect the same thing from football players.