Massachusetts Legislature Passes Civics Education Requirement

Earlier this year, the BBA Council endorsed legislation that required the inclusion of civics education in all public schools and outlined, in greater detail than existing law, the content of the civics curriculum. The House also passed a version of the bill in May, and a conference committee was assigned to work out the differences. With only a few days left in the legislative session, we are happy to report that the conference committee released its final report, and the legislature officially passed S. 2631, An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, on Wednesday!

As you’ll recall, the legislation arose from a concern among many, including students, about the inconsistency in civics education, though technically a required curriculum, across Massachusetts schools. The final bill requires schools to teach civics in order “to promote civic service and a greater knowledge thereof and to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship.” It will go into effect in the 2020-21 school year. The curriculum will include coverage of:

  • history of the United States of America;
  • the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights;
  • the Declaration of Independence;
  • the constitution of the commonwealth;
  • local history and government;
  • the function and composition of the branches of local, state and federal government;
  • the roles and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy;
  • the development of skills to access, analyze and evaluate written and digital media as it relates to history and civics;
  • community diversity and historical trends in voter registration and civic participation relative to disenfranchised voter populations;
  • opportunities to identify and debate issues relative to power, economic status and the common good in democracy; and
  • a program relating to the flag of the United States of America including, but not limited to, proper etiquette and the correct use and display of the flag, the importance of participation in the electoral process and the provisions of 4 U.S.C. sections 7 to 9, inclusive, and 36 U.S.C. section 301.

The bill also requires every public school serving 8th grade students and each public high school to provide at least one student-led civics project. Unlike in the Senate bill, however, the compromise language does not make completion of the project a requirement for graduation. The nature of the projects is quite flexible, and it can be class-wide, individual, or small group, but represents an opportunity for students to engage in unique, experiential civics-related learning.

Additionally, under S.2631, the state will provide professional training to teachers and create a “high school voter challenge program,” which would select students to run voter registration drives on their campus. Many of these are dependent on adequate funding, which is not specifically appropriated in the legislation, though it does call for the creation of a Civics Project Fund that would be funded by legislative appropriation and private sources (subject to certain restrictions).

In May, BBA President Mark Smith of Laredo & Smith LLP (himself a former high-school teacher) sent a letter to Chair William Galvin of the House Committee on Rules, expressing our support, and after it passed the House, he sent a letter to the Conference Committee urging them to ensure this important legislation was reported to the full Legislature in time for a final vote by July 31. In that letter, President Smith noted:

“The provision of civics education in public schools will ensure the next generation understands the role of all parts and functions of the government, sustaining confidence in the key institutions of a constitutional democracy, including the courts, the jury, and other critical aspects of our justice system.”

We are very pleased that the Legislature understood the importance of providing strong civics education all students in the Commonwealth, and a special thanks goes to Education Committee Chairs Senator Sonia Chang Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch for their concerted efforts on this important legislation! The bill is now before the Governor, awaiting his signature.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association