In January, Governor O’Malley released a budget which cuts out Maryland’s high school government exam. While I am no fan of standardized tests, eliminating the government exam communicates one clear message: it is not important to teach democracy in schools. In a country where corporate contributions can limit the voice that the average citizen has in political decision-making, instruction in government through public schools becomes ever so crucial.
Without the government exam, there is little incentive for schools to maintain a government course. Given the pressure on schools to cut budgets and to pare down to their most skeletal services, it would make sense for them to take out the courses that are not absolutely necessary for their students to graduate from school.
What would a school be like without civics or government? Students might graduate without knowing about the three branches of government, or the basic rights guaranteed to us by the constitution. Or, if they were lucky, they might be in class with a social studies teacher like Peter French, who teaches at City Neighbors School. French taught his sixth graders about Baltimore’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. They learned about Read’s, a drugstore whose lunch counter was the site of one of the first site down strikes in 1955. Inspired by the story, French and his students participated in organized protest to save Read’s from a developer’s plans to raze it.
It should not be luck that gets young people lessons in democratic participation like this one. Exam or not, all schools should be required to teach government or civics to their students. As we witness democracy in action in the mid-west and the Middle East, we should not be shutting it down here in Maryland. Let’s make sure our schools teach young people citizenship and democracy.