Civics reform introduced in Wisconsin, but state education department, Democrats, refuse to get on board

Wisconsin’s top educrats and Democrats are opposed to requiring patriotic civics classes in the state’s public schools.

Assembly Bill 898 would require the Wisconsin Department of Public…

Wisconsin’s top educrats and Democrats are opposed to requiring patriotic civics classes in the state’s public schools.

Assembly Bill 898 would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) superintendent to implement a curriculum that supports arguments in favor of the current republican form of government in the U.S. The curriculum also would teach about the problems inherent in communist, socialist and totalitarian forms of government.

Under the bill, the curriculum would be required to include five areas:

  1. Shared rights and responsibilities;
  1. A sense of civic pride and participation in government;
  1. How to advocate in front of governing bodies;
  1. Defending liberty under the Constitution and;
  1. Knowledge of other nations’ governing philosophies, including communism, socialism and totalitarianism.

The bill comes as politicians and educators grapple with record-setting low marks on civics test scores nationwide. The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a 5-point decline in history test scores among 8th graders, according to Politico.

Since 2014, history test scores have plunged 9 points, wiping out virtually all of the progress made since standardized testing started in 1994.

Some Democrats in Wisconsin called the bill an “unfunded mandate” – though not explaining how it would cost more to teach basic American principles. One Democrat, seeming to argue the bill is superfluous, argued social studies classes already cover civics, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

“But it seems to me that where we currently (are), the requirements are within social studies — that already includes state and local government, and … civics is embedded in social studies,” said state Rep. Kristina Shelton, D, Green Bay.

DPI said in written testimony that it objects to the bill because, in addition to considering how difficult the implementation of the curriculum will be on local schools, the department is already working on its own overhaul of civics and history classes in the state. 

One might wonder from that argument: If Americanism would be such a burden to add to instruction, doesn’t that prove the need for the bill?

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, said since the social studies credits are already required, there is no way the bill could be an “unfunded mandate.”  

“It doesn’t impose any cost, given the fact that we already have a three-credit social studies requirement,” Nedweski told the Assembly Education Committee in testimony. Nedweski said DPI’s ongoing reforms are still in the early stages without any evidence they will lead to better results.  

She also criticized DPI as only consulting educators, and not consulting the general public in its reforms.  

“The data is showing that clearly we are missing the mark,” Nedweski said about civics education in general, noting the lack of civility in politics in recent years. She cited especially the “misunderstandings over the last couple of years about how elections work” as a glaring example of where civics education has been falling short. 

She blamed all sides, including the news media, for not creating an informed citizenry on election disputes.

She also criticized current civics education as “basic,” noting her son recently had to take the state-required civics exam prior to graduating high school, a test which she felt was “not comprehensive.”  

“It’s a small step in the right direction,” Nedweski said about her proposal.

Steve Masyada, executive director of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida, told Wisconsin Public Radio he was involved in creating a similar curriculum for the state of Florida.

“The content is certainly relevant and important for students to understand,” Masyada told the public radio station. “Much of the controversy in Florida was centered around primarily the training for teachers rather than the curriculum in and of itself.”

State Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, and state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, both suggested the proposed curriculum would not be retained by students.  

Nedweski noted surveys from the American Bar Association and the Annenberg Public Policy Center already show large numbers of Americans don’t remember being taught civics in school, so what was taught previously wasn’t very effective.    

“Something is missing here,” Nedweski observed.