MONTPELIER — Teaching civics and history could be mandatory in Vermont’s public schools if Senate bill S.17 is signed into law.
The bill as introduced requires public high school students to take and pass a civics course as a mandate in order to receive a high school diploma, according to a specific curriculum outlined in the bill.
BFA St. Albans Principal and former history teacher Brett Blanchard said that while he agrees on the importance of civic education, educators across the state are facing unprecedented circumstances with COVID-19, and other matters currently take precedent.
“We need to create a priority for the coming years to make sure we meet student needs. Ten months without a stable education, social emotional system — that’s what the legislature should be concerned with,” Blanchard said. “Then we look at civics requirements through the lens of prioritizing ... This pandemic is causing a need to reallocate funds to see if we can successfully bring students back into the education system, many of whom have been lost in this virtual world for the past few months.”
Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, who co-sponsored the bill, said the return of civics would be welcome in the age of social media and the rapid spread of information and misinformation online. Sens. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), Cheryl Hooker (D-Rutland), Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), Jeannette White (D-Windsor), Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), Christopher Bray (D-Addison) and Alison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) co-sponsored the bill.
“Our country is divided more so than any time in my generation,” Terenzini said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s important to see that, beyond our personal opinions our nation is delicate and precious and needs to be preserved...teaching civics is important, because it is important to know where we came from, where we are...and that our nation’s future is largely in our hands.”
Terenzini, who was first sworn in to the Rutland Town Selectboard on the weekend of his 21st birthday, said he deeply believes in the mission of civic education and civic duty, and the imssion of empowering young minds to serve as representatives in government.
“Those young minds in those classrooms — nobody should be counted out,” Terenzini said. “We need young voices, young minds, and for them to know that you can get elected to senate at 33 if you put your mind to it.”
Fairfax School Board Chair Scott Mitchell said he thought the concept of the bill was sound, but the effectiveness of the lesson would depend heavily on how it is taught and how it touched on current events, socioeconomics and progressive movements.
“If it can be presented and taught in a neutral fashion, I think that’s great,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell remarked about how traditional civic lessons could potentially become contentious, and that with the rapid spread of social movements and online information, educators needed to be well read on the topics of discussion outside of the classroom in the sociopolitical sphere in order to keep the lessons relevant.
Terenzini said concentration on simple historical facts, constitutional knowledge and American civics should remain the focus of the curriculum, unaffiliated with partisan politics, and stressed his concern that students run the risk of acquiring a false sense of understanding of the historical and civic context.
“It’s a real problem,” Terenzini said. “Students should leave high school with a solid understanding with what a privilege it is to live in the greatest country in the world.”
Blanchard reflected on what he called the “burden of the pandemic” that was laid on students, educators and members of the educational community who have had to adjust frequently and on a broad scale, while trying to meet the expectations of the government and abide by educational law.
“I would like the legislature to discuss how they are going to give resources to schools,” Blanchard said. “Don’t saddle us with one more requirement while we’re working through this. Let’s discuss the civics requirement at a later date ... We must produce civics aware students but understand what it means to be a part of a local and global citizenship. That’s very important.”
The bill, if signed into law, would be slated to take effect on July 1, and shall apply to high school students who graduate in or after the 2023-2024 academic year, documents read.