Civics Education Bill, Including Measures Championed by Senator Lesser, Signed into Law

Bill requires students to complete civics projects and encourages voter registration for eligible high schoolers

BOSTON — On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill, based in part on legislation sponsored by Sen. Eric P. Lesser, that reinforces civics education and news media literacy in Massachusetts classrooms.

The bill, S. 2631 An Act to promote and enhance civic engagement, makes civics education a required subject in all Massachusetts public schools as part of the U.S. history and social science curriculum. Instruction is to include lessons on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the function of the three branches of government.

According to the bill, the curriculum should also develop skills needed to critically analyze written and digital media sources, a critical measure championed by Sen. Lesser in a separate bill that was incorporated into the final legislation.

“Young people can, and must be, part of the solution to our most pressing challenges. But in order to do that, they need to understand how our democracy works and have the basic skills to tell fact from fiction and evaluate news versus commentary,” said Sen. Lesser. “My hope is that these new civics classes will energize young people to get involved. A healthy democracy needs citizens to be well-informed and engaged, and that begins with educating our young citizens.”

In a recent nationwide poll, only a third of adults could name all three branches of government. According to some test results, 45 percent of 12th graders were unable to explain how citizens could change a law.

The bill also requires public schools serving students in eighth grade and high school to provide a student-led civics project, and creates a Civics Project Trust Fund to provide funding for these projects.

Sen. Lesser reads to students in Granby last year.

Finally, the bill directs the Massachusetts Secretary of State to establish a non-partisan high school voter challenge program to encourage eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.

The effort to pass a civics education bill, a long-time priority of Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), was given added urgency with the influx of so-called “fake news” witnessed during the 2016 presidential election.

According to research conducted at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, students who recalled memorable civic education experiences were more likely to vote, to form political opinions and to know campaign issues. Researchers also found that civics education does not lead students to favor one party over another.

The bill is a result of negotiations between the House and Senate on their different versions of the bill, and an amendment suggested by Gov. Baker.

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