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July 23, 2024 8:55 am

Local News

Students May See More Civics Education Next Year

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by Amanda Pirani, New Hampshire Bulletin

A new state civics textbook is one step closer to reaching the desks of New Hampshire students after the Senate Finance Committee approved a budget provision of $1 million last week for its creation. 

The provision would fund the Commission on New Hampshire Civics, which would contract with outside experts to develop the textbook content. The initiative was initially introduced by Gov. Chris Sununu in February as part of his proposed budget and is one of two efforts the legislature has made to bolster civics education this year. In May, the House passed a bill which could expand civics education to K-8 classrooms. 

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said during a Senate Finance Committee meeting that the funding would allow the commission to update civics materials for a new generation of students. 

“Students today are used to engaging in video content, multimedia content,” he said. “So what will happen is we’ll take the rich content from our history and be able to bring it into a pedagogy that will be more effective in our current environment.” 

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat and former public high school teacher, was skeptical regarding the necessity of the funding. He quipped that he would even advise on new materials for free if the Senate scrapped the provision. 

“I just don’t believe we need to spend a million dollars to get a new book,” he said. “We can save a million dollars – a million dollars we can spend someplace else.” 

D’Allesandro suggested the work of non-profit NH Civics already adequately supports civics education with free classroom materials. The nonpartisan organization leads programs for educators and students, as well as providing free civics curriculum resources. 

However, it was a NH Civics trustee, former state Supreme Court justice and congressman Chuck Douglas, who helped the budget amendment move forward. 

“[Chuck Douglas] approached me maybe three weeks ago and said that if we funded it for a million dollars we would be able to create a new civics textbook,” said Senate President and Wolfeboro Republican Jeb Bradley during the Senate Finance Committee meeting. 

In a May opinion column in the Concord Monitor, Douglas expressed concern over U.S. Department of Education data released earlier this month that placed eighth grade U.S. history and civics scores at record lows.

Maria Painchaud, interim executive director of NH Civics, agreed that more priority must be given to civics education. She described the cause of its decline as complex, but highlighted the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. Painchaud sees the act as having pressured teachers to ‘teach to the test,’ which assesses students’ knowledge in English and math. 

“Something had to go,” she said. “So any extra focus that was put on what was perceived as non-core, got the backseat, and now we’re experiencing… the pitfall of that decision.”

NH Civics has played a significant role in greater engagement by the Legislature on civics education. The non-profit advocated for Senate Bill 216, which passed the Legislature in early May. The bill, which is heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk, would make changes to the state’s civics education, outlining requirements for both public and nonpublic schools.

The bill requires civics education for New Hampshire students beginning in elementary school, and continuing through middle and high school. Previously, civics education requirements only applied to high school students. The bill defines civics as nonpartisan educational programming that covers civic knowledge of the state and national government, understanding of founding documents, and the acquisition of analytical skills. 

Under SB 216, high school graduation requirements would remain the same: a half-year of instruction in civics and a full year of instruction in history and government. Students would also need to obtain a passing grade on a competency exam developed by their institution and a grade of 70 percent or better on the 128-question naturalization examination developed in 2020 by United States Citizen and Immigration Services. 

If the bill is signed, schools will be expected to meet the new curriculum requirements by fall of 2024 with no additional funding from the state. 

“For some teachers, the first reaction is okay, how am I going to fit this in?” Painchaud said.

She emphasized that as a proponent of the bill, NH Civics has committed to providing free professional development programs and curriculum materials over the next year to ease the transition process. 

This story was written by Amanda Pirani, an intern at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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