Bipartisan bill would require civics course for NJ college students

A bipartisan effort to require civics courses in public colleges and universities is making its way through the New Jersey legislature.

A bipartisan effort to require civics courses in public colleges and universities is making its way through the New Jersey legislature.

If passed, the bill would require all "degree-seeking students" who are enrolled at a public institution to take a course on "American government and civic engagement." The new requirement would take effect in the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year and must be satisfied by graduation.

The text of the bill is short and passed through the Senate Higher Education Committee with amendments in a 4-1 vote. The bill now awaits introduction in the General Assembly.

"By requiring students to receive instruction on American government and civic engagement, public institutions of higher education in the State will more adequately equip individuals with the knowledge necessary to make informed civic decisions and ensure a globally-aware and socially-responsible citizenry," the bill mandates.

Additionally, the text acknowledges that college serves as an introductory time in a student's life toward taking an active role in public policy and affairs. It reasons that students aged 18-24 are often taking their first steps as active political participants by casting their first votes on local, state, and national issues, therefore making it vital to increase education on "the fundamental principles and values of American democracy and citizenship[.]"

[RELATED: New ‘Civics Alliance’ aims to ‘unite Americans in the effort to preserve civics education’]

By expanding civics requirements, the bill aims to provide a pathway for young voters to make informed decisions on community and national issues.

S857 was introduced in January by Majority Whip Senator Troy Singleton (D). Senator Sandra Cunningham (D) joins the effort as an additional primary sponsor, while Senator Jean Stanfield (R) signed on as a cosponsor.

Stanfield responded to Campus Reform's request for comment, telling the outlet that "Democracy doesn't work without participation."

She continued, "It's important that we educate students on how our system works and how they can make change through the civic process. Strengthening our Democracy should always be a bipartisan goal."

Singleton broke the news of the advancement of the bill in a press release on Mar. 24, acknowledging the fundamental difference it aims to make in higher education. 

"It is a sad reality that most Americans are not well versed on how our government works. According to the Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, in 2021 only 56% of U.S. adults could name all three branches of government," Singleton stated. 

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"Requiring college students enrolled at our state's public universities to take a civics or American government course is a natural extension of the work we've already done. This will help ensure that our young adults become informed and engages citizens in our democracy." 

The bill follows a bipartisan motion to implement civics courses in middle school curriculum. 

The Laura Wooten Law was enacted in 2021 after being signed by Governor Phil Murphey. The bill, also sponsored by Singleton, set a precedent for the higher education bill by requiring at least one civics course to be taught at the middle school level in order to meet graduation standards.

Expanding civics education to students has been an initiative undertaken in other states, although primarily aimed at the high school level. According to a 2020 report by Center for American Progress, 30 states incorporate a semester of civics courses as a standard for high school graduation. Eight states, in addition to Washington D.C, up the minimum requirement of course completion to one academic year.

In addition to the requirements, there is an active effort to improve the quality and standard of civics in students' education.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis announced an investment of $106 million toward expanding civics courses through the Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative in July 2021. The initiative targets K-12 education to improve civics curriculum.

According to DeSantis, it is the state's goal to educate every K-12 student in the Sunshine State with the new civics standards by 2026- the nation's 250th anniversary.

Campus Reform has contacted the bill sponsors for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.

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