On a drive to educate Floridians on civics

Published January 27, 2007

The facts are troubling, but not surprising:

- Florida ranks very low in the percentage of adults who vote.

- A majority of residents can't identify either of Florida's U. S. senators and struggle mightily to name the three branches of government.

- Fewer Floridians volunteer time to a civic activity than in most other states.

There are many reasons for this, beginning with our nature as a rootless place where everybody is from someplace else. Long-time residents still root for northern sports teams and "home" is probably Pittsburgh, not New Port Richey.

Florida ranks last in the number of residents born in-state. Fully one-fourth of Floridians speak a language other than English. Public schools long ago stopped emphasizing social studies.

These deficiencies define us. We don't know each other, so we don't trust each other. This is especially true in urban areas with transient, fast-growing populations.

Now the good news: Some influential people are aware of this alarming level of civic ignorance and are determined to do something about it.

Democrat Bob Graham, the former U.S. senator and governor, and Republican Lou Frey, the former congressman, have launched a bipartisan drive to improve civic education.

Their target audience includes the governor, Legislature, superintendents, school boards, teachers and textbook publishers.

They want civic education to be mandatory in public schools and for social studies to be added to those subjects included on the FCAT, the same as reading, writing, math and science.

"A lot of people are interested in ... New York and New Jersey but not here," Frey said. "It's really incredible, the lack of knowledge in the state. Not just kids, but adults."

Graham and Frey met a few days ago with Gov. Charlie Crist, who enthusiastically endorsed the pair's proposals.

It was ironic that the two political leaders were decrying the lack of civic involvement at a time when hundreds of everyday people paid their own way to Tallahassee to protest high insurance rates.

Over the summer, Graham and Frey made civic education a major project at their think tanks at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida.

"Our schools teach civics as a spectator sport rather than as a participatory sport," their study concluded.

The 49-page report, "Enlisting a New Generation of Florida Citizens," recommends choosing school textbooks that stress civics and creating a permanent strategic center to keep the issue alive.

Graham never supported the use of FCAT scores as a yardstick for measuring student achievement. But, he reasons, as long as it's here, social studies should be part of it.

"If a subject is not tested, it is not taught," Graham said.

Both faulted TV, and to a lesser extent newspapers, for what they see as a declining emphasis on government and public affairs.

Both men traced the problem to the Watergate scandal, which they say alienated many people from government.

"The problem really comes from the lack of knowledge of the citizens about what they have - what precious rights they have and how we're squandering that," Frey said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.con or 850 224-7263.