This is the prototype of "The Indiana Reader," which would recast articles from Howey Politics Indiana for middle and high school students.
This is the prototype of "The Indiana Reader," which would recast articles from Howey Politics Indiana for middle and high school students.
OXFORD, England – On Thursday, Jan. 24, the State Senate voted 31-17 to pass Senate Bill 132, which would make it a graduation requirement for high school students to pass the same civics exam given to immigrants to the United States. The bill now faces consideration in the House. (Full disclosure: My dad, John, a state senator, was a cosponsor.)

Senate Democrats, in unified opposition to the bill, raised concerns that instituting another graduation requirement, without any supporting resources, wouldn’t have the desired effect. Instead of more knowledgeable citizens, the argument goes, this mandate would only encourage “teaching to the test” and erect another barrier to graduation for students in under-resourced rural and urban schools.

These concerns are valid, and they counsel against Senate Republicans’ bid to require testing without any supporting provisions. However, the need to boost civics education is too important for Indiana Democrats to sit on the sidelines. With some tweaking, it’s the perfect cause for Democrats to champion.

SB132 has started an important conversation. We’ve all heard the statistics: Only 26% of Americans can correctly identify the three branches of the U.S. government; apathy and disengagement are ubiquitous. Report after report from organizations on the left and right alike have been sounding the alarm, and as polarization has increased, it has only grown louder. Against this background, a bevy of states have turned to civics education, with 17 requiring a test and eight requiring a minimum score for graduation – all since 2015.

Republicans would like Indiana to become the ninth – but their proposal needs work. As is, SB132 won’t do much to instill robust habits of citizenship; and it will hurt graduation rates, most acutely in already struggling schools.

A better policy would follow two principles. First, civics learning should be experiential as well as fact-based. The current bill would only require students to memorize answers to a set of predetermined questions about U.S. history and governmental structure. Facts are essential, but making students cram for a single test won’t by itself make them more engaged citizens.

Instead, we should incorporate exercises in defining and solving community problems. Effective civics education must combine the basic understanding of government with an understanding that our own actions as citizens are the basis of that same government. There’s room for flexibility here: Imagine the formative effects of having teams of students research an issue and discuss it with government officials. Knowledge without experience is impotent; experience without knowledge will be ineffective.

Second, civics must be meaningfully supported by the state. Additional resources are required, and potentially assistance with content development and skill identification – both services provided by the Colorado Department of Education, for example. 

Teaching the responsibilities of democracy is a basic state duty, but also a sound investment. A citizenry that is more knowledgeable, more engaged, and more willing to stand up for the greater good will make for a better Indiana.

Democrats were right to oppose SB132’s additional mandate on our schools. But now they must be proactive in proposing a better approach. Civics knowledge is simply essential, and there’s a strong case from the left for better civics education.

This issue reflects a concern for the underpinnings of democracy, a concern which Democrats have embraced with gusto. Consider HR1, U.S. House Democrats’ symbolic first bill, which advocates redistricting efforts, campaign-finance reform, and increased voter access. Given that recent Republican dogma points away from all those issues, the Democrats can increasingly claim to be the party of democracy. All of this is good policy, and as polls increasingly demonstrate, good politics.

But there remains room for a big push on civics education. As a recent report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress stated last year, proper civics education is necessary for students “to become informed and engaged citizens.” Civics education is a natural fit.

Prominent Democrats such as Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg have highlighted the importance of engaging my generation, not just for party, but for country. Some of the most inspiring recent political movements have been driven by our nation’s youth. Look no further than the gun reform and voter registration efforts spearheaded by a small group of Florida high school students that spread across the country. Taking on civics will say to youth: “We believe you have something to add. We believe you matter.”

Indiana Democrats are right to strongly support teachers and schools, but this can’t stand in the way of all proposals for civics education. Instead, they should embrace the issue and propose a flexible yet demanding civics plan. All Hoosiers will benefit when they do. 

Jay Ruckelshaus is a Rhodes Scholar from Indianapolis and a graduate student in politics at the University of Oxford.