HB 3009: A Bold Reimagining of Civics Education in Texas

One of the best ways to address our participation problem in Texas is to boldly reimagine civics education - just as is done by HB 3009

Testimony of Anthony Gutierrez on behalf of Common Cause Texas in Support of House Bill 3009

Texas Committee on Public Education 

April 16, 2019


Common Cause is a national, nonpartisan advocacy organization that works on a broad range of voting rights and democracy issues.

Here in Texas, one of the biggest problems we strive to remedy is the participation problem.

The 2018 Civic Health Index produced by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas included some alarming findings on this subject.

Among them, they found that:

  • Political participation remains extremely low. Based on figures from the 2016 general election, the state ranked 44th in voter registration and 47th in voter turnout among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This ranking is a slight improvement from the 2013 Texas Civic Health Index, where Texas was ranked last (51st) in voter turnout during a midterm election year.
  • Texans do not regularly talk about politics. When asked how frequently they talk about politics with friends and family, only 23% say they do so often – ranking the state 50th in the nation.
  • Donating and volunteering is not a priority for many Texans. Texas ranks in the bottom quarter of states in supporting charitable organizations: 46% of Texans donate at least $25 to a charitable organization annually and 23% report doing volunteer work in their communities in the past year.

Participation is the single most vital ingredient necessary for our democratic system to function properly. The lack of participation we’re seeing in Texas is a huge problem that we must address.

There are a number of reforms we’re supporting that would address parts of the problem.

For example, we could increase the number of Texans registered to vote by adopting online or automatic voter registration.

Modernizing our election infrastructure and expanding the countywide vote center models would would go a long way towards reducing the long lines at the polls.

But while those types of reforms would make a big difference – we believe the single biggest step we could take towards addressing our participation problem in a comprehensive way would be to improve the way we go about teaching civics to our young people.

We strongly agree with this recommendation from the Civic Health Index:

  • Reimagine Civics Education. Civic knowledge and skills are learned early, so the more our schools, parents, grandparents, and community organizations teach the habits of civic engagement, the stronger Texas will be in the long term. It is our collective responsibility to modernize the way we prepare the next generation to take on the duty of self-governance.

As we spoke to experts who work in the civics education field, we were excited to discover that a form of project-based civics is gaining momentum around the country and appears to be precisely the type of bold reimagining of civics education that we need in Texas.

And this is a sentiment echoed by our membership.

Recently, we partnered with Generation Citizen to ask Texans for their thoughts on the state of civics education in Texas.

We emailed a civics survey to our membership of over 32,000 Texans and shared it online.

The vast majority of responses were decidely negative, along the lines of what Jamie, Billie and Martha said:

  • I didn’t think they even taught civics class anymore – Jamie A Churchill
  • Civics and history classes are frequently taught by coaches who do well to stay a chapter ahead of the students. To improve the experience, we need teachers who are passionate about the civics curriculum. – Billie Noguess
  • I am pretty sure it could be better. Kids need to know how a democracy works and how they are a critical part if the process. – Martha

Robyn does a great job of nailing the problem:

  • My father was a high school civics teacher and principal in northeast Texas for over 40 years. I am a retired TX teacher of 28 years and loved teaching social studies / government /civics, following in his footsteps! I have seen the changes and decline in interest and devaluing of this subject. It has been put on the back burner as the overload of testing core subjects has consumed the Texas curriculum. Civics needs to be given the same weight and importance, ensuring ALL understand how democracy works and how choices today will keep our country strong. – Robyn Gregory

While the vast majority of the responses were fairly depressing, there were a few really encouraging ones – like these from Sharon and Jamie:

  • I was a bilingual teacher for 27 years (22 in Dallas ISD and 5 in CHISD), and most Civics was just given through boring reading. Students could not connect. I made it different in my classroom because we did Project Based Learning to attach the Civics lesson to real life to help my students learn and understand. We read the daily newspaper in both Spanish and English. We did not have Social Studies or Civics basal. We learned by “doing” and “discussing” with Civics activities. We looked for answers to solve problems in the world today. I won a 2017 Texas Humanities award for the way I taught my students. They wrote a monthly newspaper about things that interested them and the learning they were doing. They were phenomenal! – Sharon Kay Snowton
  • Civics class is a dry, quick overview that I did not learn much from. I would make it more about how to be an engaged participant in democracy. – Jamie

Without us prompting them to get specific answers, Texans, on their own, talked about how they felt the current state of civics education in Texas is unacceptable.

But more importantly, when the spoke of civics education in a positive context, the common thread was that those people were given instruction in a way that made civics tangible to them. Instead of simply reaching how a bill becomes a law in a book, they had some type of hands-on experience that showed them how government really works.

That type of hands-on education usually came about as a product of a teacher going above and beyond the curriculum but House Bill 3009 by Representative Talarico strives to codify exactly that type of project-based civics instruction.

We strongly believe – of all the bills we’re working to get passed this session – House Bill 3009 has the potential to be the most impactful when it comes to finally making substantive progress towards remedying our participation problem in Texas.

We thank you for your consideration of this legislation. We strongly urge you to vote House Bill 3009 favorably out of committee.