Cornfield: More than McCleary on Olympia’s education agenda

Maybe it’s the constitutional scrap incited by the McCleary school funding decision.

Maybe it’s the constitutional commotion ignited by President Donald Trump’s travel ban executive order.

Or maybe they simply want to inspire more conversations about the Constitution and governance, ours and the nation’s, in classrooms across Washington.

Whatever the motives, initiatives to improve and expand civics education are wending their way through the legislative labyrinth.

In the House, conservative Republican Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger and liberal Democratic Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos of Seattle have introduced a bill requiring high school students to pass a slice of the civics component in the federal citizenship test to graduate. It directs the state superintendent to devise a test with 50 questions, with at least 35 correct answers necessary to earn a passing grade.

In the Senate, a Republican senator is trying for the second time to tax political campaigns and use the money to teach civics and boost enforcement of state election laws.

The idea pushed by state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, is to treat the campaign organizations of candidates, initiative backers and political committees — including those tied to Democratic and Republican parties — like small companies. Senate Bill 5313 would make them pay business taxes if total contributions reach a particular threshold. An estimated $1.59 million could be generated in the next budget.

On a third front, Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, wants to unite public schools and private foundations on projects to boost students’ classroom instruction and civic participation.

He’s authored Senate Bill 5236 to get it done with the creation of the Civic Learning Public-Private Partnership. This group would be modeled after the Financial Education Public-Private Partnership, created by the Legislature in 2009 to increase young people’s financial literacy.

On Monday, Feb. 6, both Senate bills passed out of the Senate Education Committee, of which Zeiger is chairman. They are awaiting consideration by the Ways and Means Committee.

State law mandates high school students earn three credits in social studies, including at least a half-credit in civics. The courses should cover how local, state and federal government operate, the state and U.S. constitutions and the electoral process.

Zeiger’s quest is to bolster the content and quality of what is taught. To him, the value couldn’t be any clearer than right now.

Consider the school funding debate wrought by the McCleary decision. As lawmakers wrestle with carrying out the state’s paramount duty to fund public schools — see Article IX in Washington’s constitution — residents must understand their rights and responsibilities — see Article I — to influence the process.

It’s not just about understanding what’s happening in Olympia. It’s about figuring out how to converse on civic affairs after last year’s elections and the events of the past few weeks.

“I worry that our civil discourse is breaking down,” Zeiger said. “The future of this country depends on our ability to resolve our differences in a civil and constructive way and that absolutely begins with civic education.”

Three bills are in the hopper tending to this cause.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623;jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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