ST. PAUL – State Rep. Dean Urdahl is continuing his quest to re-emphasize civics in the state’s educational system and has assembled a group of prominent, diverse officials to assist in 2020.
The Acton Township Republican has been a leading advocate for addressing what he calls a crisis of civics knowledge in Minnesota. His ideas and potential legislation were part of a wide-ranging informational hearing on civics conducted Wednesday by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairs the committee and has partnered with Urdahl on past civics proposals. The duo successfully led to enactment legislation requiring students to receive a test which mimics the exam administered to national immigrants during the naturalization process. They also brought to passage language in 2019 “encouraging” school districts to offer civics courses for credit.
Now, Urdahl said, it’s time to learn more about student proficiency in the civics. He and Nelson are authoring legislation requiring school districts to report the percentage of graduates from the previous year who passed the required civics test. Students who do not pass the exam will not be precluded from graduating.
“It comes down to being consistent, effective and relevant in how we teach civics,” said Urdahl, the chief author of civics legislation in the House and a former social studies teacher of 35 years in the New London-Spicer school district. “Students learn what they think is important. If students perceive civics to be of lesser importance than other subjects, they are less apt to make it a learning priority. Hence, there is a 75-percent lack of civics proficiency among Minnesota students, something we must improve.”
Nearly 20 experts from various fields joined Urdahl to testify at the hearing Wednesday, presenting their support of civics education to the Senate committee. The cast of testifiers included current and former secretaries of state Steve Simon and Mark Ritchie, respectively, as well as former Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Paul Anderson and former Minneapolis schools superintendent Bill Green, a current Augsburg University professor.
Urdahl said naysayers to his civics proposals often decry implementation costs. He contends costs should not be a barrier.
“They use cost as an excuse but, to me, that’s not legitimate,” Urdahl said. “All I am asking is for aggregate scores to be submitted to the state. There’s no new software to buy or anything like that.
“Reports show 75 percent of our graduates leave high school not proficient in civics. We are in trouble if we cling to our existing model that clearly is failing three out of four students and undermining our republic in the process.”
The civics exam uses 50 of the 100 questions on the United States Citizenship test, as chosen by The Learning Law and Democracy Foundation in consultation with Minnesota civics teachers. In order to pass, students must correctly answer at least 30 of the 50 questions correctly.