Passage of civics test bill a proud achievement for Arizona

When Governor Doug Ducey signed his first bill into law shortly after taking office, he sent a message that Arizona students must have a basic understanding of U.S. civics before graduating from high school.

Frank Riggs

Frank Riggs

With strong bipartisan support from state legislators, he made Arizona the first state in the nation to adopt such a law based on the Civics Education Initiative.

Some have questioned why another test is needed. The answer is simple. Our country is facing a wide and growing “civics education gap.” Studies show our students are learning less and less about how our freedoms were earned and why they matter.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, only 24 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in civics, and in a recent poll of 1000 Millenials, a staggering 77 percent couldn’t name a single U.S. Senator.

We’ve all seen the “man-on-the-street” interviews revealing the average American’s embarrassing lack of knowledge about the fundamentals of U.S. government.

The answers certainly provide plenty of comic relief, but the ignorance of where our country’s freedoms came from and how our government works is no laughing matter. The purpose of requiring a civics test is not to add yet another box to check. It is to create informed and engaged citizens.

As a former U.S. Congressman myself, I have a deep and personal understanding of how civic involvement can make a difference in my community and in my country.

I look to our youth now and see the lack of civics education in our schools, and I worry.  Our very structure of government depends on the consent of the governed and the sustained involvement of our citizens. When so many young people don’t know who a U.S. Senator represents, why the Colonists fought the British, the outcome of the Civil War, or how the constitutional system of checks and balances work, it’s easy to see why we should all be concerned for the future.

The new civics test requirement will ensure that by the time Arizona high school students walk across the stage and collect their diploma, they will have passed the same U.S. Citizenship test that immigrants must take to become U.S. Citizens by correctly answering at least 60 out of 100 questions.

Among other things, they will know the branches of the U.S. Government, understand what the Declaration of Independence did, and know the terms of U.S. Senators and Representatives.

They will name the current president, vice president and governor of their state. Perhaps most importantly, they will know their rights — and responsibilities – as U.S. citizens.

And they will be empowered and prepared to participate in our system of self-governance — by voting, joining a political party, helping with a campaign, joining a civic organization or community group, giving an elected official their opinion, publicly supporting or opposing an issue or policy, running for office or even writing to a newspaper — like this commentary!

I’m confident that the good teachers of Arizona can and will integrate the teaching of civics into the core curriculum, and that the basic facts about American history and government will be committed to memory by every American citizen.
After all, doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical to require immigrants to pass this test and not require the same demonstration of this basic, yet crucial, knowledge by our own citizens?

The mission of the Joe Foss Institute is to close the civics education gap in America and prepare our youth for informed, engaged citizenship.

We’re proud to sponsor the Civics Education Initiative and lead the way to its bipartisan passage in our home state. Our goal is to have this legislation passed in every state by the 230th Anniversary of the U.S. Constitution in 2017. I’d like to invite anyone who is interested in helping to further this mission to visit our website at joefossinstitute.org.

I encourage parents, students, teachers and veterans, in particular, to check out our programs and find out how to get involved.

The freedoms and rights we enjoy as Americans unite us as a nation across all walks of life, regardless of race, color or creed.  Knowing more about our history and government makes us a better country. The Civics Education Initiative is truly a national imperative and an idea whose time has come.

Editor’s note: Mr. Riggs, who joined the Joe Foss Institute as president and CEO in January, is a 13-year resident of Scottsdale and a former three-term U.S. Congressman from northern California.

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