by Karl Kurtz
Last week I participated in the Washington State Senate's first-ever Civic Education Day, which was designed to honor the many groups and people in the state who contribute to the civic education of young people. About 150 people came to the capitol in Olympia for the day, were honored on the floor of the Senate by a resolution, treated to a luncheon at which Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Republican Leader Mike Hewitt gave awards to a dozen of them, and heard remarks by former Governor Booth Gardner and me.
In our work with NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, we are often asked to talk about what legislatures can do to strengthen democracy education. As I reviewed a list of such activities that we have compiled, it struck me that the Washington Legislature is doing just about all of them and serves as a model for legislative commitment to improving public understanding of representative democracy. The catalogue of the Washington State Legislature's democracy education programs includes classroom-based assessmement of civic learning, internship programs, page programs, live broadcasts of legislative sessions, a legislative youth advisory council, active participation in NCSL's America's Legislators Back to School program, a teacher training program on the legislative process, and staff who are specifically assigned responsibility for civic education.
Continue reading after the jump to learn more about these activities.
- In an age when nothing is studied in school unless it is tested but teachers and students are overloaded with high stakes tests, the Washington State Legislature enacted a classroom-based assessment of civic learning--in other words, low stakes, teacher-centric testing. It is part of broader classroom-based assessements of social studies, arts and health/fitness. These assessments are based on the state’s learning standards. State curriculum specialists create tasks and questions as guidelines of good assessments and provide them to teachers and school districts. As their name suggests, these assessments are given in the classroom by a teacher.
- The Legislature has one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive internship programs in the country, offering not just standard undergraduate internships for political science majors but also special internships in computers, photography, video, and historic preservation and graduate and law school internships.
- The Senate and House each have a page programs for 14-16 year-olds from throughout the state, complete with a page school.
- The Washington State Legislature partially funds an independent nonprofit organization, TVW, one of the finest state public affairs networks in the country, through a contract for service to broadcast live coverage of the legislature's proceedings throughout the state. The state's cable television industry also contributes to this enterprise.
- This year the legislature created a Legislative Youth Advisory Council "to examine issues of importance to youth and advise the Legislature on these issues and related legislation."
- Washington state legislators consistently rank in the top 10 for state participation in NCSL's America's Legislators Back to School Program.
- The Washington State Legislature's Legislative Scholars Program provides an interactive summer training program for middle and high school teachers on the legislative process. Those who complete the program have the option of coming back to the capitol during session to observe the legislature at work.
- All of these activities cannot be undertaken without staff. Both the House and Senate have staff whose job descriptions include responsibility for public outreach and education about the legislative process. They are the ones who manage most of these programs.
An important symbolic way in which legislatures can contribute to civic education is to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of those who work in the field. The Washington State Senate's First Annual Civic Education Day on Feb. 21, 2007 was a valuable initiative in this area.