The New York State Bar Association has adopted a report urging lawyers and judges to take the lead in their communities to improve civics education in local schools.
The report from the state bar’s Law, Youth and Citizenship Committee on Civic Education recommended that civics, including the study of law, government and history, be taught in each of the elementary, middle and high school grades to give students the “skills necessary to be an effective citizen.”
“A robust civic education is vital for promoting a culture of engagement in the democratic process and ensuring that all Americans, regardless of socio-economic status, race and national origin, are informed, thoughtful and active citizens,” the committee’s report said.
The state bar said its push to enhance civics education is in keeping with the group’s decades-long commitment to the topic.
Last fall, it co-sponsored an appearance in Albany by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter in which he called for schools to devote more teaching time to civics.
A report from a committee organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that fewer than 30 percent of high school seniors are proficient in writing, history and civics. Souter is a member of that American Academy committee.
Souter’s former colleague on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, is also promoting iCivics, a program that makes civics curriculum available to educators online.
In 2011, then-state bar president Vincent Doyle III, of Connors & Vilardo of Buffalo, warned of the “weakening” of the commitment to civics education in public schools and directed the Law, Youth and Citizenship Committee to prepare recommendations about how to reverse it.
The report endorsed Friday by the state bar’s House of Delegates urged the group to put pressure on the governor, the Legislature, the state Education Department and the Board of Regents to enhance the civics curriculum and to provide funds to support it.
According to the panel, the legal profession benefits from an “active, informed and engaged” citizenry.
“Our legal institutions and justice system depend upon the effectiveness of our educational institutions to make sure Americans are educated and acculturated” to the rule of law, it said, “including trial by jury and other components of our system of law and justice.”
Judith Kaye, the former chief judge of the state, spoke to the House of Delegates to urge their adoption of the report. She said the emphasis on civics has “fallen abysmally” and that, in general, schools are “failing miserably” in teaching it.
“Why you?” asked Kaye, of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “Because the pathway to change…literally is in your hands today.”
Kaye alluded to the grim statistics recounted by the report, including the findings of a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law that showed 58 percent of those responding could not name the current U.S. senators in New York. A third of the respondents could not correctly say that the president heads the executive branch of government.
Kaye wrote the Court of Appeals’ decision in 1995 in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, 86 NY2d 307, in which she decreed that a “sound basic education” consists of the skills necessary for children “to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”
The Law, Youth and Citizenship Committee is chaired by Richard Bader of Voorheesville.
State bar President David Schraver of Nixon Peabody in Rochester wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo last month describing the findings of the committee report and urging his support in improving civics education.
The state bar has not yet heard back from the governor, according to a spokesperson.
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