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Civics program on chopping block

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


Would you know how a prohibition on ex post facto laws enforces our separation of powers; the difference between procedural and substantive due process; or why evidence obtained during an illegal police search should be excluded from trial?

Well millions of high school students can answer these questions or deduce them, due to one extraordinary education program. For the past 14 years the non-profit Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. (www.civiced.org) has been imbuing students with a profound respect for the institutions of American government and for their role as citizen. (Talk about values education.)

The center's We the People program is a civic education curriculum so successful that graduates from the high school program out-test college sophomores and juniors in political science courses, on knowledge and understanding of government. As to becoming engaged, active citizens, We the People graduates blow their peer groups away. More than 40 percent have or plan to be active in a political campaign, compared to 14 percent of their peers.

For years I've judged some of these students at an annual We the People competition in Washington, D.C., where they are quizzed extemporaneously on their depth of knowledge of the history and contemporary relevance of the Bill of Rights. Their level of understanding is often dazzling.

But this program may soon be shut down. The 26-million students and 82,000 educators who have participated in it since 1987 may be the last. President George W. Bush, whose idea of civic education is learning the proper technique for hazing pledges, is pushing to eliminate some of the most successful education programs in the nation. His education budget seeks to sweep away such vital programs as Reading is Fundamental, which teaches poor children to value books by giving them some of their own; the National Writing Project, a universally lauded program that provides professional development for teachers in how to teach writing; as well as the Center's We the People program.

Apparently when Bush said, "leave no child behind" he meant, "leave no program behind."

The president suffers from the peculiar Republican ailment of block-grant-itis. He wants to take the money for these small national education programs and give it to the states. But these programs must have a national infrastructure to exist, and the only way to do that is with a direct federal grant.

The We the People program costs congressional pocket-change -- $15-million annually, out of a Bush-proposed education budget of $21-billion -- yet its effect on civic intelligence is priceless.

At the national competition that took place this month, a team from Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, Ind., was asked whether the right to privacy should be explicit rather than implicit in the Bill of Rights.

Student Stevie Kelly said it should.

Our privacy right is based on court precedent alone, argued Stevie, and she went on to name the case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, in which the court struck down a Connecticut ban on the use of contraception. Without being explicit in the Constitution, Stevie said, privacy is vulnerable to being revoked by a new court. But Matt Musa, another member of the team differed. Matt said that often the right to privacy comes in conflict with other rights, such as when a newspaper publishes personal information about a public figure. If we amend the Constitution to include privacy, Matt said, it could limit the reach of other rights.

The dialogue was impressive and they weren't even the winners. Florida won.

The We the People program is not run by a group of lefties that Bush and Co. have to run out of town. The Center's educational work was started under President Ronald Reagan, supported by George Bush-the-elder, and continued under Bill Clinton. Advisory Committee members run the political gamut from U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. These leaders understand something that Dubya doesn't: Civic education is the only way to develop responsible citizens -- a fundamental reason for public education in a democracy. On both sides of the aisle there is an effort underway to amend Bush's education package to reauthorize this program and other small education programs of national significance.

We are a nation of civic dunces. A 1999 study of 18-to-24 year-olds by the National Secretaries of State, found that young people "lack any real understanding of citizenship," or "the democratic process."

Yet, our system of government is based on the idea that the people control it and not the other way around. The American people share no common ethnicity, religion or race but are unified as a nation by a set of concepts -- principles that recognize our inalienable rights to individuality and self-determination.

How can we expect Americans to check the power of government and actively police the doings of their representatives when so many Americans don't even know their Congress members's name? How can we ensure the perpetuity of our precious rights to free speech and press when studies have shown that citizens would blithely do away with them in the name of congeniality? How can our successful model of the social contract continue to be strong when so many Americans don't know what they've signed?

We the People was an antidote to this ignorance. We'll see whether Congress is willing to supply the serum.

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