Civics education is a hot topic – here’s how the 2021 Legislature handled it

March 10, 2021

Civics education is top of mind for many Americans. Because of the unrest of last year and this one, it’s become a new hot topic in education reform.

This is good news. It’s definitely time for states to take seriously the education in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that they’re providing their children.

If there is any downside at all to issues becoming hot topics, it’s when people think the government is necessarily the right and first place to fix it. In reality, conversations about civics ought to start in the home, classroom, and local community level.

Luckily, the Utah State Legislature in the 2021 session acknowledged the importance of civics education – without being hasty. And we were encouraged by what the Legislature did and didn’t do this year.


HCR 15 Concurrent Resolution Emphasizing the Importance of Civics Education

This civics education-focused resolution – which passed both chambers unanimously – is intended to help Utah recognize “the critical role of an engaged and informed citizenry in a healthy democratic government and the importance of civics education in preparing students with the tools necessary for civic engagement.”

It lists some sad realities, including the tumultuous state of politics today and national data that reveals a lack of knowledge and understanding of civics nationally and in our state. Further, the resolution prompts the creation of an informal working group to review civics education in Utah and make recommendations on improvements.

The fact that this resolution passed so easily demonstrates some early and important consensus of the opinion that we refocus and reprioritize civics education.


HB 327 Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative

Likewise focused on civics education, this bill requires Utah Valley University (UVU) to create the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative (within its Center for Constitutional Studies). In short, this initiative aims to create space for political discussion and civic education. To do so, the initiative provides classes in “philosophy, history, economics, and political science,” along with resources in civic affairs, and fosters thoughtful civic engagement.

Originally, before the current language was offered as a substitute, this bill sought to create a brand-new center at UVU. But there were questions about whether it was the role of the Legislature to create a new center at a university rather than the institution of higher education itself. After the refining process of the legislative session, this initiative was born. It, too, comes from the widespread sense that Utah needs to do more in civics education.


HB 124 Civics Education Amendments

This bill made a minor technical change to language regarding the current civics test, which is required for graduation. In short, it removed the number “100” from the description of how many questions are in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services test. That relates to Utah’s civics test requirement because Utah uses 50 questions from the official United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services test, but the number of questions on that government-created test can sometimes change. For instance, it went from 100 questions in 2008 to 128 questions in 2020 and back again to 100 questions this year.

Originally, this bill was slated to change the date on the civics engagement pilot program (which passed last year but was later defunded). However, that piece was pursued in appropriations, leaving this bill to make the technical change.


SB 148 Public Education Modifications

Offering parents access to school curriculum is a policy that Sutherland Institute has long supported – and luckily, that’s exactly what this bill does. Specifically, the bill requires local education agencies to provide parents with access to the curriculum that the local education agency uses.

This is a general public education bill and a win for all academic subjects, but it is especially important for civics education. Civics has attracted a lot of attention, which has increased the number of providers and perspectives in this space. As this area becomes a central issue for education reform, parents deserve to know what is being taught in the classroom.

Utah lawmakers were right to focus their attention on civics education, and doubly right not to make drastic changes right out of the gate. How our state decides to address civics education can have lasting impacts for generations. It’s worth getting that done right rather than fast. Congratulations to the Utah State Legislature on another great session.

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