One of my long-held goals as a state legislator has been to strengthen American civics education in Colorado. After a multiyear effort, I joined the other bipartisan sponsors to see SB21-067, Strengthening Civics Education, signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis.
Before I was elected in 2014 to the State Legislature, I taught various college courses on law and policy. I was struck by the lack of knowledge about our government structure, the U.S. Constitution, individual constitutional rights in the Bill of Rights, and the Colorado Constitution.
In the most recent national civics assessment test, less than a quarter of high school students achieved a grade of proficient. A recent national survey found that only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government. Joshua Dunn, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado Springs stated in written testimony for SB21-067, “This lack of civic literacy is not costless. It contributes to both public cynicism and polarization.” We cannot expect to have an effective democracy if citizens are unaware of the fundamentals of government.
So, I was very pleased to run this 2021 civics education bill with Rep. Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango), Sen. Don Coram (R-Montrose), and Sen. Chris Hansen (D-Denver), which received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers. Regardless of party affiliation or political views, we are concerned about the lack of civics knowledge by our fellow Americans, especially the younger generations who have received much less instruction in civics in K-12 due to other educational demands placed on our schools.
Just as the state Legislature has acted to reduce excessive testing and other mandates, we acted this year to address the critical importance of American civics education in Colorado.
Under this new civics law, Colorado K-12 educational standards will be revised this year to require instruction in the following areas:
• The formation and development of the governments of the United States and state of Colorado, including study of foundational historical documents
• The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Colorado Constitution, the federal Bill of Rights, the State Bill of Rights, landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and Colorado State Supreme Court decisions
• The three branches of government and our system of checks and balances
• An understanding of how laws are enacted at the federal, state, and local government levels
• How citizens can be involved in their government, and participate and influence government processes and actions
Citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. Former State Sen. Lois Court in committee testimony for the bill shared her concerns that “Americans are woefully undereducated about the system in which they are privileged to participate.” In committee testimony, Seth Masket from the University of Denver summarized it well by saying, “This bill can help to give students the tools they need to be participating and engaged citizens who know how to interact with their government and change it if necessary.”
To preserve our system of self-government in a constitutional republic, citizens must have a basic understanding of our government at the federal, state, and local levels, including knowledge of fundamental constitutional principles.
In Colorado, this new civics education law will equip upcoming generations with the knowledge they need to be active and informed citizens.
State Rep. Terri Carver is from Colorado Springs. Carver represents Colorado House of Representatives District 20.