In Alaska, Constitution no cure for education woes

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2011

JUNEAU — Faced with low voter turnout and a student population perceived as constitutionally uneducated, two Alaska representatives believe civics is the solution.

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Chris Miller / Chris Miller
Chris Miller / Chris Miller

While generally supportive of teaching civics, some educators and legislators have expressed wariness of two bills that aim to infuse classrooms with new social studies curriculum.

One proposal by Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, would require high school students to answer questions from — but not necessarily pass — the civics portion of the naturalization test in order to graduate. The second bill, proposed by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, would revise high school graduation requirements to mandate that school districts teach a class in the final year of high school on constitutionalism, with a specific focus on the nation’s founding documents.

These founding documents, as specified in Keller’s bill, include the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, Articles of Confederation, and the constitutions of the first states.

“These are profound, eloquent documents,” Keller said. “They provide an ideal portal into what the country is about.”

Currently, Alaska’s High School Qualifying Exam tests on reading, writing and math, according to state Department of Education and Early Development spokesman Eric Fry.

Keller said his bill’s emphasis on the Constitution was inspired by the federal health care overhaul and what he said is the Obama administration’s loose interpretation of the constitution, a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the legislature.

“Many of my constituents think that if this country doesn’t revert back to its Constitution, because it has departed from it, then we won’t last long,” said Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, chairman of the House Education Committee, who added that he believes judges have been legislating from the bench and unfairly interpreting the separation between church and state.

While Dick said he unequivocally supports teaching the founding documents, the challenge is to provide an engaging education.

“I could clearly remember the pain of civics class,” Dick said. “If taught properly, and taught in every classroom, our nation could be back on its feet in seconds.”

If Keller’s bill makes it out of the House, it would likely progress through the Senate starting at the Education Committee, where Vice Chairwoman Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, said she feels the bill is unnecessary and would be in no rush to hear it.

“I don’t think you should take a personal interest, put it in for a bill and have to abide by it,” Davis said, adding that she doubts the bill would make high school graduates better citizens. “I think (Keller) was premature in getting it out there and discussing it.”

Millett’s bill has a different objective: she hopes to get students out to the polls, after being persuaded by statistics showing that people who take the naturalization test in the course of attaining citizenship vote more often.

“It’s an interesting way to look at voter apathy and get kids ready to vote,” Millett said, adding that her bill remained a work in progress and may not be considered until later in the session.

While the naturalization test is used in some classrooms for simulation purposes, Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, said no other state requires students to take it to graduate, though 20 states test on civics in their high school exit exams.

Both proposals attracted criticism from the National Education Association, which raised issues regarding interpreting the constitution and the testing mandated by the bills.

“Students in Alaska already take courses in U.S. Government, U.S. History and Alaska History, which encompass the topics these bills attempt to prescribe,” Alaska chapter president Barb Angaiak said in a statement. “Both bills provide for additional testing of students who are already saturated with benchmarks and standards.”

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said one place where civics is not taught is in the state legislature, and maybe that ought to change.

“Part of me wants to say that if we make students learn the Constitution, we should make legislators too,” Gara said.

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