We know that to have a functioning democracy we need educated and informed citizens. Democracies are only as strong as the people within – democracies work when people understand how they work and know how citizens can participate.
To this end, I plan to introduce legislation this week that proposes to require public high school students to pass the United States Citizenship test to graduate. This is a requirement a student can meet independently on a computer, either at home or in a library. Students can take the test as many times as they need to; they can use a study guide provided online or watch a video that walks them through the test.
Twenty other states, including New York and New Hampshire, already have this requirement and five more are working on legislation like mine.
Research shows that people who pass this test vote more and are more active volunteers; real behavior changes are clear. This is also about fundamental fairness: we expect our new Americans to know more than native-born children about the building blocks of our democracy.
I have been interested in civics for a very long time. I majored in political science in college and in the early 80s I volunteered to help immigrants who were interested in pursuing U.S. citizenship. Honestly, I was amazed at how difficult the test questions were, even to someone like me who was essentially studying civics. I brought the questions home to my roommates to see how they would do on the test and quickly realized that even my college-educated friends had no idea of the answers to questions like: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? What is the Bill of Rights, and where will you find it in our Constitution? Which branch of government has the right to declare war under our Constitution?
Years later, my children attended one of the largest high schools in the state and the only exposure to the basics of civics came in the form of U.S. History in 11th grade. Only a few students can take an advanced placement government class in which the entire year is spent learning about the U.S. Constitution. I encouraged all four of my children to enroll in this AP class, which required them to watch the presidential debates, the president’s State of the Union speech, read newspapers, and debate issues in a constructive, responsible way. Each time one of my children was enrolled in this class we had lively discussions at the dinner table about our democracy, how it works, and our responsibilities as citizens to keep it strong.
Often, I found myself looking up specific Constitutional amendments that I had forgotten from my college days. I realized we didn’t even have a copy of the United States or Vermont Constitutions in our home. You can be sure I remedied that shortcoming. I am hopeful that if the bill I am sponsoring becomes law, many more families will be having similar conversations at their dinner tables in the coming years.
The U.S. government established U.S. Constitution and Citizenship Day in 2005 as September 17, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787. It requires schools that receive federal funds to hold an educational program for students pertaining to the Constitution. Vermont will have better informed citizens if we require students to understand the Constitution and how a democracy works.
In Montpelier, House and Senate committees have settled into the work ahead of them including minimum wage, education funding, open public meetings and access to public records. We have also begun reviewing the governor’s budget, which he presented this past Tuesday, January 23. Representative Webb and I continue to be available to answer your questions and hear your concerns on Tuesday mornings from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. at Bruegger’s Bagels Bakery in Shelburne.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve.