Local politics: Ohio conflicted over civics education

Michael Curtin

In recent weeks:

A.Paolo DeMaria, state superintendent of public instruction, called for eliminating Ohio's 12th-grade proficiency test in American government.

B.Ohio State University announced creation of a leadership institute within the John Glenn College of Public Affairs to help elected officials better understand the basics, to say nothing of the complexities, of state and local government.

C.U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley, presiding over a naturalization ceremony, told 60 new citizens from 35 countries, “Each American citizen has a duty to be informed, to be engaged and to be vigilant about public affairs.”

When it comes to civics education, we clearly are conflicted.

In the first case, DeMaria leads a task force aiming to reduce the number of proficiency tests required of Ohio's elementary and high-school students. The effort reflects a widespread feeling that proficiency testing and “teaching to the test” have gotten out of hand. For starters, the recently passed state budget eliminated the previously required fourth- and sixth-grade social studies tests.

In the second, OSU's new leadership institute acknowledges that most newly elected officials, and even many veteran officeholders, have scant knowledge of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions, city charters, budget processes and other basic building blocks of government.

In the third, Marbley's remarks were delivered to a courtroom full of immigrants who had just passed a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test on the basics of American government.

Consider this column an argument for not eliminating or watering down the amount of civics education provided in Ohio's elementary and high schools. We need more, not less.

How much or little proficiency testing is given in civics is a separate question. However, in recent years, Ohio's schools have focused ever more heavily on teaching the content that students will be tested on.

Over many decades, studies consistently have shown that America's youth and adults have poor knowledge of and little engagement with their government.

Such lack of knowledge makes citizens more susceptible to demagoguery, “alternative facts,” and partisan appeals to emotion over fact. These dangers grow more acute with every passing day.

The movement for tax-supported, free education for all — begun in the 1830s — was based, at least partly, on the belief that universal education is essential to make good citizens, capable of the responsibilities of self-government.

In 1851, Ohio became the first state to adopt constitutional language promising “a thorough and efficient system of common schools” to every citizen.

As Ohio grew, the promise of free education to all became more important as the state developed a highly decentralized system of local government. There's simply a lot of government of which to keep track.

Ohio has 3,842 units of local government, including 1,308 townships, 942 cities and villages, 612 school districts, plus library districts, parks districts, solid waste districts and more. Our state has 19,135 elected officials, not including judges.

To have a fighting chance of keeping all this government accountable, honest and responsive, the answer certainly is not less civics education.