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Minutes for HB2039 - Committee on Education

Short Title

Requiring students to pass an American civics test in order to graduate with a high school diploma.

Minutes Content for Mon, Mar 22, 2021

Chairperson Baumgardner opened hearing on HB2039.

Tamera Lawrence, Senior Assistant Revisor, Office of the Revisor of Statutes, gave an overview of the bill. (Attachment 1)

Proponent Testimony:

Attorney General Derek Schmidt spoke of a long-term interest to increase civic education in Kansas schools. In 2015, Attorney General Schmidt proposed before the Kansas State Board of Education that a student must pass the United States Citizenship Test to graduate from high school. While the Board did not adopt the recommendation, that presentation did contribute to the creation of the Civic Advocacy Network which recognizes Kansas schools that have exemplified civic engagement practices.

Data-based criticism of civic learning is well-known as the results of a national survey released last year on Constitution Day showed that while some knowledge of some principals of our government had improved over the past year, there is still much room for improvement, including:

  • Just over half (5l%) Americans were able to name all three branches of government but more than one-fifth (23%) couldn't name a single branch.
  • Less than half (47%) knew that a two-thirds vote of Congress is required to override a presidential veto.
  • More than one-fourth (29%) believed that if the President and the Supreme Court disagree on whether an action of the President is constitutional, Congress has the final responsibility for determining whether the act was constitutional.

Notable among the recommendations of the Guardian of Democracy report are:

  • Local schools and administrators should "Encourage student participation in in-school and out-of-school civic learning experiences" and "use civic learning to build twenty-first century skills, help prevent dropouts, and improve school climate."
  • State Policymakers should "Send a strong message that preparation for active, informed citizenship is the co-equal purpose of education along with preparation for higher education and career."

There is no cure-all to resolve this gap between the lack of civic knowledge and the nation's vital need for it. This recommendation is offered in the spirit of offering an additional tool to assist and contribute to the dedicated efforts of civic and government instructors and other leaders throughout Kansas schools.

The Attorney General has had the privilege of addressing classes of new Americans at naturalization ceremonies in the state. Without exception, these are moving occasions, joining people from throughout the world who have come to the United States in pursuit of liberty and opportunity in our great nation. One of the requirements imposed on naturalized citizens is that they take and pass the Naturalization Test (Attachment 2) which is basic to any understanding of how our system of government operates and the principles upon which it rests. The concept behind making the Naturalization Test a high school graduation requirement is that the country would be well-served by applying to all of us the same measure of basic civic knowledge we insist upon for new immigrants. A 2018 report by Education Week showed that 19 states require a civics exam to graduate from high school.

The basic idea of requiring passage of the citizenship test seems to be unassailable. The natural human tendency to take for granted that which comes easily such as citizenship for those of us born to it should be combated. A ready way to do so is to hold us to the same standard for knowledge as those who choose to join our citizenry. (Attachment 3)

Representative Steve Huebert, District 90, Kansas House of Representatives, told how Thomas Jefferson believed the people needed education in order to keep this fragile democracy safe. Americans need to understand U.S. history, the structure the country is built on, and what part each citizen plays in keeping democracy strong. Without solid ground, the structures, the branches of government, and free and open elections, will crumble.

There is a movement in many states to focus on a Civics Test that is necessary for graduation. This requirement makes it clear to students and the the public that knowing how the system of democracy works, what history is and what the Constitution does are so important that students should know as much and be motivated to be part of the country.

The Legislature is given the task of ensuring students are educated in Civic Government. This bill is a way of highlighting and adding to the importance of this area of study. (Attachment 4)

Proponent written testimony was submitted by:

Carl Maughan, Attorney and naturalized citizen. (Attachment 5)

Opponent Testimony:

Blanche Wulfekoetter, Social Studies Teacher, Jefferson West High School, USD 340, expressed reasons to oppose this bill stating that making the passage of a national curriculum civics test a graduation requirement seems counterproductive to the excellent work Kansans have been doing to redesign civic engagement education which is SUBJECTIVE. HB2039 attempts to minimize the scope of its impact with an OBJECTIVE test. Attached is an explanation of the Kansans Can: Civic Engagement Successful High School Graduate Flourishing Tree. (Attachment 6).

Passing a nationally standardized test required for naturalization/citizenship, which can be included in both United States History and Government classes, makes for poor assessment of civic engagement success. Requiring passage of a test to obtain a diploma after already passing these classes will not enhance the graduation requirements and will complicate the process of earning the diploma unnecessarily.

The Kansans Can motto of leading the world in success of each student is best continued with the focus on employability skills and growing the Civic Advocacy Network. A pass or fail of a standardized test does not serve a worthy purpose to earn a diploma. (Attachment 7)

Thomas Fulbright, Social Studies Teacher, Hope Street Academy, Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, said teaching students with the goal of drilling and killing content so they can pass a multiple choice question test can not possibly teach students to understand the complexities of our Government and prepare them to be Civically Engaged in a meaningful and constructive way. The focus of Social Studies should be developing student's skill sets related to critical thinking, civic engagement, etc., not memorization of facts. Students should not just know things but be able to address current and future troubles which our Democracy will face. The only thing these tests have shown is that young people are not great at multiple choice tests.

The Civics Exam is sometimes used as a political document. Given the inevitable rotation of the parties in power, political whims from the White House may dictate what our students learn.

This bill will disincentivize teachers from including anything in their classroom if it isn't on the test. Teachers should be making sure young people are given the skills to make their participation well thought out and constructive. Skill and drill pedagogy stiffles passion and creativity in teachers or passion in students. Without fostering that passion in students, there will continue to be a shortage of teachers. (Attachment 8) Also included with the testimony is a copy of an article from the Topeka Capital Journal dated February 10, 2021. (Attachment 9)

Nathan McAlister, Social Studies Teacher, Seaman High School, USD 345, stated that the intentions of the bill are noble but unnecessary. The intention of this bill is to increase the civic knowledge of the students of Kansas but this is already happening. The Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) has created programs and standards to actively engage every student in civics education through the Civic Advocacy Network (CAN) and the innovative History Government and Social Studies (HGSS) standards.

Through the CAN, schools actively engage their students and participate in governmental processes within their school, community, and at the state level. In the classroom, Kansas teachers have been creating and implementing meaningful and engaging civic-based activities for students. KSDE has created and held a Civic Engagement Conference where students network with one another, present past civic projects previously implemented, and hear incredible keynote speakers.

Guided by Kansas's nationally recognized HGSS standards, teacher are creating innovative activities for students. Kansas teachers are asked to present around the nation because of the innovative and engaging standards. Students have created voter registration drives in their communities, written and passed state legislation, worked with citizens of all political stripes to make meaningful change in their communities. Kansas students better understand the governmental process, not because of completing a worksheet or a multiple-choice test, but because they are "involved".

The "involvement" in education is a better bang for the state buck. Having students actively engaged in the civics and government process and having students presenting and networking with other students throughout the state is how we create an active and engaged citizenry. (Attachment 10)

Mark Desetti, Legislative and Political Advocacy, Kansas National Education Association, wondered why young people are being singled out with the assumption they know nothing about civics, history, and government. Perhaps elected officials across the nation and even first responders should demonstrate an understanding of constitutional rights.

Right now, Kansas public school students are taking civics, history, and government classes in high school and are subjected to tests. If they don't pass, they fail the class and must take it again in order to have enough credits to graduate. There is no need to legislate more in this area.

Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution leaves general supervision education to the elected Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) which is often referred to granting the Board self-executing authority. The Legislature is perfectly within its rights to make suggestions to the Board or to pass resolutions calling on the Board to consider certain actions, but that decision rests with the KSBE. This bill is entirely unnecessary. (Attachment 11)

Leah Fliter, Director of Governmental Relations, Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), explained that KASB's legislative policies reaffirmed by the Delegate Assembly supports efforts to improve student civic education through academic standards, accreditation, and school redesign. The State Board of Education's "Kansans Can" school redesign commitment to the success of each Kansan says one measure of student success is civic engagement. Based on input from civic and business leaders, school districts are moving beyond "seat time" and reliance on standardized tests in favor of emphasizing civics education and an increased focus on local public service.

Opposition to the bill also springs from the knowledge that standards set by the State Board and implemented by locally elected boards of education require students in the state's public high schools to take at a minimum three units of history and government, including U.S. History and instruction about the U. S. Constitution to graduate.

The Kansas Constitution bestows upon the State Board the authority for general supervision of public schools. KASB believes civic education should be comprehensive and community based under supervision of the State Board of Education rather than directed by legislative mandates. (Attachment 12)

Opponent written testimony was submitted by:

Jill Weber, Executive Board Member and President Elect 2021, Kansas Council for Social Studies (Attachment 13)

Deena Horst and Ben Jones, Legislative Liaisons, Kansas State Board of Education (Attachment 14)

Neutral written testimony was submitted by:

Matthew T. Klusener, Civics Teacher, Valley Center High School, USD 262 (Attachment 15)

Seeing no other Conferees, the Chair closed the hearing on HB2039.

The meeting was adjourned at 2:30 PM.

The next meeting will be March 23, 2021, 1:30 PM in Room 144-S.