A new chapter for civics in Massachusetts

A new law to bolster civics education couldn't come at a better time for Massachusetts kids

November 9, 2018

By Keith Mahoney, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs

My engagement with civics started at an early age – dinner conversations, delivering newspapers, holding signs on election day outside polling locations. My Saturday morning cartoons taught me the preamble of the Constitution (via Schoolhouse Rock).  Having worked in and around government for much of the last 15 years, I have seen firsthand how decisions made on Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and City Hall can affect the most important aspects of life. An engaged citizenry is crucial, if we want to elect individuals who represent their constituents, help them identify the public policy priorities of the community, and hold them accountable when they fail to do so.

Gov. baker signs the Civics Education bill into law
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signs into law a bill that expands the role of nonpartisan civics education in Massachusetts schools.

Unfortunately, there are troubling trends that undermine citizen engagement. Massachusetts has historically ranked at or near the bottom for competitive races for the state legislature.  Challenges to incumbents in general elections, let alone primaries, is too often the exception rather than the norm. Despite the robust political debate in our time, more than half of Massachusetts lawmakers ran in 2018 unopposed. Those in contested races, here as in much of the country, will be paying special attention to the most reliable voting block: white homeowners, age 50 and over.  This leads to foreseeable, but perhaps not beneficial, policy decisions in areas like education funding, zoning laws, and criminal justice reform.  Elected officials represent their entire district, but it’s not surprising they pay special attention to the issues of concern to their most reliable voters.  We need to change that narrative. Looking at the many long-term challenges we face in Massachusetts – and the state’s changing demographics, the need to build a more engaged, informed, and motivated electorate, especially among young people, has arguably never been greater.

In May 2017, the Boston Foundation teamed up with CIRCLE at Tufts University's Tisch College on a public forum on civics.  That conversation, which featured thoughts from current and former elected and appointed officials, sparked more conversations among groups on how to improve the current climate for civic participation.  The discussions began to focus on the absence of civics as part of the Massachusetts K-12 curriculum. That focus was picked up and amplified by key partners such as Generation Citizen, iCivics and the John F. Kennedy Library, who eventually convened the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition.The Coalition worked with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who crafted legislation that updates academic standards for history and social science education by adding components such as media literacy and an understanding of the functions of local, state and federal branches of government. It also builds in requirements for student-led civics projects, to give students a more hands-on opportunity to understand the underpinnings of our political and civic systems.

The bill stalled out at the end of the legislative session for some minor changes – but this week, Governor Baker signed it into law. This was a necessary and important first step – but more work has to be done to provide resources to teachers across the Commonwealth to design and implement a new curriculum. We look forward to working on that effort. The process of identifying the issue, crafting legislation to address it, and create something that can earn bipartisan support is a great case study in our civic processes at work. It’s critical that we raise our next generation of voters and citizens to understand the power of that process, and inspire them to take an active role in our society as voters, citizens and future leaders.