Alaska Schools May Intensify Focus on Civics Education

Alaska high school students might have to pass a civics test or complete a civics course to meet graduation requirements if a new proposal is enacted into law.

Senate Bill 29 aims to significantly enhance Alaska’s investment in civics education, introducing an updated curriculum and a dedicated statewide civics education commission.

The proposal for these enhancements was put forward by Senate President Gary Stevens, from Kodiak, intending to boost civic engagement and foster a better understanding of democracy among Alaska’s young population.

“There’s been a quiet epidemic, I think, in this country over the years – a sort of apathy and actually division,” expressed Stevens, who is a retired history professor. “For decades, we have focused on other issues, other than civics education, and certainly those have all been good issues. Math, science, reading, writing: All of those are important. But we’ve done that at the expense of social studies.”

The Senate approved the bill in May last year, moving it to the House for further consideration.

During the bill’s initial hearing in the House Education Committee, Stevens emphasized that preparing students for active citizenship serves as a fundamental pillar of public education. He stressed the need for robust policies that demonstrate the importance of readiness for civic engagement alongside readiness for college and career pursuits.

If passed, the bill would mandate the creation and maintenance of a statewide civics curriculum by Alaska’s Board of Education and Early Development, modeled after the federal naturalization exam for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. High school students would be required to either take a semester of civics or pass an exam to satisfy graduation criteria.

In addition to detailing the functions of the United States and Alaska governments, the curriculum under the bill must incorporate the government systems traditionally used by Alaska Native communities.

John Pugh, a former University of Alaska Southeast chancellor, former Department of Health and Social Services commissioner, and Air Force veteran, voiced his support for the bill based on his personal and professional experiences that underscore the importance of citizen engagement with civic duties.

“Over the years in the university, there’s strong research showing that individuals who do have this knowledge or take coursework in political science and government – that they do engage more than others who do not,” said Pugh.

The proposed enhancements would entail expenses, including the addition of a specialized social studies content specialist and an Alaska Civics Education Commission coordinator within the education department, as well as covering travel costs for commission meetings.

Rep. Andi Story, representing Juneau, sought clarification on the absence of additional funding in the bill for school districts to compensate staff assigned to teach civics classes.

Responding to this, Stevens argued that civics education should be regarded as an integral component of basic education.

“We’re giving billions to education,” he remarked. “We can expect our departments, our school districts, our teachers to provide basic education, which is citizenship. So I think that’s just a responsibility of the department of education and a responsibility of the budget we give to them.”

Co-chair Rep. Jamie Allard, from Eagle River, mentioned that Sen. Click Bishop, representing Fairbanks, aced the proposed civics test with a perfect score. She anticipates that the bill will undergo further review in the House Education Committee for amendments and public feedback, although no hearing date has been set yet.

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