N.J. will now require civics courses to be taught in middle school under new law

Posted Jul 23, 2021

New Jersey will soon fill what officials say is a critical gap in its education system: a lack of civics lessons in middle school.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed a bipartisan bill into law that requires all middle school students in the state take at least one course in civics, the study of the rights and duties of citizens, or United States government, beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

Officials said New Jersey was one of only a few states that didn’t require specifics civics courses in middle school. They are currently mandated only in elementary and high school.

Murphy said teaching civics is “about understanding the vital role that every New Jerseyan plays in the future of their community, our state, and our nation.”

“Civics is the ability to think critically for one’s self about issues and ideas, and then advocating for what you believe in — as opposed to what we see too often today, where complex issues are boiled down to a bumper sticker, and in many cases, we’re even struggling for the facts that underpin them,” the Democrat said before signing the measure during a virtual ceremony. “Civics is learning that democracy doesn’t just happen.”

The measure (S854) is named “Laura Wooten’s Law,” after a Princeton woman who volunteered as a poll worker for 79 straight years, right up until she died in 2019. That, officials said, makes her the longest continuously serving poll worker in American history.

“She never expected any kind of honor or recognition, because as she often said, she was just doing what she felt was her civic duty,” Wooten’s daughter, Yvonne Hill, said during the signing ceremony. “Laura strongly believed everyone should exercise their right to vote.”

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Of New Jersey’s 522 public school districts, only 29 teach a distinct course in civics to middle schoolers, Murphy said. Otherwise, civics is “essentially shoehorned” into other social studies classes, he said.

This law will specifically require each local school board to provide a course “about the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function and limitations of government, and the role of a citizen in a democratic society.”

The New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University will craft curriculum guidelines for local school boards. The center will also provide professional development and other resources about civics instruction for middle and high school teachers.

The state Legislature passed the bill earlier this year without a single no vote — 33-0 in the state Senate and 76-0 in the Assembly.

“Being able to make sure that we have a constant and structured civics education allows for individuals to have the tools to develop their own better futures, their own communities, their own knowledge base, and to think critically of issues impacting our society,” said state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, one of the main sponsors of the measure.

Democrats who sponsored the bill have said it’s especially necessary after the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building in protest of current President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 election. Trump has claimed voter fraud, though his campaign lost every court case challenging the race’s outcome.

“It is critical that we teach young people to understand their role in their communities and our democracy so that they have the tools they need to be well-informed, active citizens,” the measure’s sponsors in the Assembly, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, D-Mercer; Linda Carter, D-Union; and Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said in a joint statement.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-07-25 02:53:29 -0700