Improving K–12 civic literacy is an investment in our democracy

By Aizaz Gill

The 2022 midterm elections results demonstrated that more Pennsylvania voters are rejecting partisan rancor and seeking common ground. While this is a sign of hope for our democracy, there is still much work to be done to address the divides in our communities and workplaces. One important step for reducing polarization is for communities across the state to invest more in civic education for all K–12 students.

As a nation, we are currently facing a crisis of civic literacy. A 2022 study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 47% of American adults can name all three branches of government. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s National Report Card, in 2018 only 24% of students performed at or above NAEP proficiency standards in civics.

This is the result of several decades of underinvestment in civic education. Currently, the federal government invests a mere 50 cents per K–12 student in civic education compared to 54 dollars per K–12 student for STEM. Both are important and worthy of public investment. This deficiency in civics funding contributes to the political polarization and dysfunction plaguing America today.

Businesses are concerned that too many young people lack a basic understanding of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the responsibilities of being a citizen. This limited education about our democratic system makes people more vulnerable to misinformation and sowing distrust in the electoral process, which are destructive to our country’s social cohesion and economic competitiveness. Continued neglect of civic education will weaken the state’s civic and economic strength, putting at risk businesses, supply chains and investments that will negatively impact employees and communities.

Students who receive quality civic education are more likely to vote, give back to their communities, complete college and develop skills that advance their careers. At Business for America, we believe that our constitutional democracy and economic prosperity must be driven by an engaged citizenry. Civic education needs to start with young people, who are our future employees and community leaders.

This is why Business for America was a leading sponsor of Philadelphia Civics Day on April 13, organized by Generation Citizen and Philadelphia Public Schools and hosted at the National Constitution Center. Like a science fair for civics, students from five Philadelphia high schools showcased their Action Civics projects with community and business leaders. They received valuable coaching and mentorship from these Community Advisors. Projects such as Civics Day provide students with essential skills such as critical thinking, multisource research and the ability to work on teams that require effective communication and collaboration.

In the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the last major piece of civics legislation was Act 35, signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018. Act 35 amended the Public School Code of 1949 to require that all school entities administer a locally developed assessment of U.S. history, government and civics at least once to students during grades 7-12. However, the civics assessment test is being unevenly administered across school districts. Although it was a step in the right direction, Act 35 hasn’t accomplished nearly enough to prepare young people to be civically engaged.

As an example, state Sen. Gebhard (R-48th dist.) has introduced legislation requiring completion of a half-credit economics and personal finance course as a graduation requirement in Pennsylvania. Perhaps PA legislators could examine similar ways of increasing governmental literacy of Pennsylvania students as well. Other examples could include a Civic Seal earned by high school students, media literacy classes or programs on the First Amendment.

Though Act 35 made progress to improve civic literacy throughout the commonwealth, we call on the PA state legislature to find more solutions for students to learn about their role in government, the rights and duties of citizenship and how they can participate in democracy. Our lawmakers in Harrisburg must invest in the civic education of our young people today so that the communities of Pennsylvania can reap the benefits for decades to come. ••

Aizaz Gill, of Burholme, is the Pennsylvania Policy Director for Business for America, a national, nonpartisan organization focused on engaging businesses across Pennsylvania to protect the democratic institutions that are essential to a thriving economy.