Civics education key to informed society says Nebraska legislator

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October 13th, 2015

Westside High School near 87th and Pacific Streets in Omaha offers students taking civics courses the chance to take part in the a 'Political Campaign.'

Westside High School near 87th and Pacific Streets in Omaha offers students taking civics courses the chance to take part in the a ‘Political Campaign.’ (Courtesy Photo)

The importance of encouraging all Nebraska citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote and to volunteer to help others in their community is essential to the development of an engaged, healthy and vibrant community. But today, civics classes in many Nebraska high schools are threatened by an increase emphasis on math and reading comprehension.


Recently, the civics class requirement for high school graduation in Nebraska was redefined by the state Department of Education. The department formerly required three semesters of social studies; which included one year of American history and a full semester of civics education. That requirement has since been doubled, to six semesters.

Nebraska State Senator Adam Morfeld represents district 46 in Lincoln and he is the founder of a group called Nebraskans for Civic Reform. He said since the No Child Left Behind federal educational mandate was implemented in 2001, a more stringent testing protocol has resulted in an increased emphasis on stronger math and reading skills and has caused local school districts to focus less attention on social studies and civics education.

Westside's Political Campaign Project Manual. (Courtesy Brandon McDermott)

Westside’s Political Campaign Project Manual. (Courtesy Brandon McDermott)

“If people check out, our democracy will become less representative and as it becomes less representative people become more skeptical of it,” Senator Morfeld said. “So we have to break that cycle, and in order to do that – I believe that the best place to start is with our youth.”

Senator Morfeld said the facts are clear; all around the country voter turnout is seriously lagging.

“Well everybody’s voting at a lower rate than previous generations including young people – but young people more so than most age demographics.”

In Douglas County alone, voter turnout during general presidential elections has fallen from 79 percent of registered voters in 1992 to just 68 percent bothering to cast a ballot in 2012.

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Paul Landow said there is a growing recognition across the country for the need to reinvigorate civics education in the high schools.

“A lot of states are rethinking their government civics education requirements,” Landow said. “Many students, High school graduates and frankly, college students just don’t have a basic understanding of the pieces and parts of American government.”

Landow said Nebraska should also consider its current approach to teaching the importance of civics engagement to much younger children.

“(We need to) re-evaluate the requirements for civics and government education and start coming up with some things that are going to provide a more basic education for students.”

Senator Morfeld said the Nebraska Department of Education does allow schools districts for more control to fit local needs and this gives each district    ‘a flavor of its own.’

One example of a school district shaping its students minds with expanded civics classes is District 66 in Omaha, more specifically Westside High School.

Westside now requires their seniors to take an American government class. This advanced civics course takes the place of a course that students formerly took during the ninth grade, but now it’s tailored more for a more advanced 12th grade educational level.

The Westside Social Studies department also set up a ‘Political Campaign Project’ for seniors. Students now take lessons in the fundamentals of the American electoral process, from mock voter registration drives to a closer examination of the role of political party primaries, political debates, even political conventions where party platforms are drafted and adopted. Students themselves can run for president or congressional office. Jonathan Preister, the American Government team leader at Westside High School, said this focus on the fundamentals of the political process has proven to be very engaging to students.

“With high school kids, you have to kind of push them out there a little bit. They’ll tell you they don’t want to do those kinds of corny or quirky types of things. But the second you get them to start doing them. They really start enjoying it and having a ball with it.”

Students can also seek election for Chair of the political party or they can elect to be a member of the media, writing stories on political ‘candidates’ or events for the ‘Westside News Network.’ There are 250-300 students each semester, so only 17 states take part in the process. But most of the details are similar, if not identical to the process a real political candidate would face.

“I always get really excited about the elections I know all the ins-and-outs all the little details and all that stuff. But when you talk to students, a lot of their reaction is, ‘That’s going on?’ or ‘Oh yeah, they’re all corrupt’ or this or that. And I think that largely stems from students not really understanding how the system works.”

Preister said this is the fourth year of this project and the biggest change since its inception has been how the teachers present it to students. For example a mock national convention was added last year.

“We have what’s been called ‘US Gov bucks’ now. Students actually have to go and fund-raise from different teachers who are different PACs and they have to put together a budget. The money really is kind of the thing that can make consequences for those state parties or those candidates that don’t fall in line with the National Party which I think are representative of real life.”

Preister said this deep involvement in the mechanics of the political process helps students take ownership of the process but also facilitates retention on the information they learn in class.

“That’s why we kind of put this project together. Because our students I feel like after we’ve gone through this, they’ll see reports on C.N.N. or what’s covered in the newspaper this like ‘oh my gosh, that’s just like what Mr. Preister was talking about’.”

Preister said there is something to be said about showing students firsthand the ins-and-outs of politics. Voter turnout for the first two primaries was just over 50% at Westside. He said many students were angry when they found out the low turn-out. They were even more angry to find out the figures aren’t too different from real-life voter turn-out in 2012.

“When I tell my other classes ‘Oh yeah, only barely over half of the class voted,’ they’re just appalled. They say ‘really they didn’t take their time or they didn’t go and vote?”

But Senator Morfeld said involvement doesn’t need to start so late in the education of our youth.

“You can go to any of our classrooms, kindergarten through fifth grade even and ask young people, ‘What are things that you really like about your neighborhood’, ‘what are some things you’d like to change.’ And they know and they understand.”

Senator Morfeld said it’s important for Nebraska youth to understand the processes of the American political system and the importance of voting. But, just as important, is having youth who are engaged and critical thinkers, who take the time to seriously study the issues for themselves and then take action towards solving problems in their community.


Omaha Public Schools and Millard Public Schools declined to be interviewed for this story.

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