CHARLES TOWN – The political thinkers Aristotle, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson would be flattered. James Madison, an instrumental architect of the U.S. Constitution, would applaud.
Those giants of Western civilization and their formative ideas and achievements for American democracy today are highlighted in new state legislation offering more specific guidance on what West Virginia middle and high school students should learn in their history and civics classes.
Sponsored by state Senator Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), Senate Bill 636 formally takes effect this week after it was enacted in April by the Republican-dominated state legislature with little notice amid the political culture debates filling today’s news headlines.
In addition to identifying the writings about the interplay of government and individual freedom already taught, SB 636 spells out the particular documents and social ideologies to be objectively explained, analyzed and debated in classrooms throughout Jefferson County and the rest of the state.
Currently, students must engage in “in-depth study” of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. SB 636 adds a specific requirement to teach about the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery), the 14th Amendment (outlining qualifications for holding federal public office), the 15th Amendment (guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote) and the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote).
Current law also broadly directs the state Board of Education to ensure students learn about “the ideals, principles and spirit of political and economic democracy in America” as well as the “organization and machinery” of the governments of the United State and West Virginia. But SB 636 clarifies that students must also learn about federalism, the Electoral College, and the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers of government. The legislation adds that, at a minimum of any historical ideologies that are explained in classrooms, the differences between capitalism, republicanism, democracy, socialism, communism and fascism must be taught.
“The required courses shall emphasize the use of primary sources and interactive learning techniques, such as mock scenarios, debates and open and impartial discussions,” the law states.
SB 636 lists six organizations—the College Board, the Bill of Rights Institute, the Constitutional Sources Project, Hillsdale College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship—for education officials to consider when developing instruction to meet the new history and civics standards. The legislation also encourages educators to consult teachers, elected officials, business leaders as well as parents and citizens.
Finally, SB 636 directs state education officials to ensure that existing statewide assessments in history and civics gauge what students cumulatively learned—not just what they might have recently learned in a particular course—during middle and high school.
SB 636 easily passed the Republican-controlled Senate and House. The final Senate vote to pass the legislation was 33 to 1. The final House vote was 64 to 33.
Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat Delegate representing Jefferson County’s 66th District, voted against the measure. The county’s other state representatives — Senator John Unger, a Democrat, and Republican Delegates Paul Espinosa and Wayne Clark — joined Rucker in supporting SB 636.
As chair of the Senate Education Committee, Rucker said she proposed the legislation after seeing many confusions and misunderstandings arise during public discussions and debates after last fall’s presidential election. Calls to eliminate the Electoral College after the Jan. 6 rioting demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol during the congressional vote to certify the presidential election was part of her decision, she said.
“These controversies made me realize that there were certain things I thought were important that we include in our history/civics education,” the senator wrote in an email message.
Rucker said she spoke to state Superintendent Clayton Burch and lawyers with the state education department about such legislation. “We all agreed it would be a good idea to have a bill with some basic parameters of what should be included,” she wrote.
Rucker pointed out that education officials are undertaking a standard four-year review of the state’s history and civics curriculum. She stated that SB 636’s adjustments will be incorporated through that review process.
Every parent has a right to review the curriculum their county school board has adopted, Rucker said. That process includes public comment periods offered whenever changes are proposed to teaching standards, she said.
A member of the House of Delegates Education Committee, Doyle said he voted against the final version of SB 636 because he felt the legislation proved unnecessary. He would have voted for the final version, he said, if it had included a House version that would have expanded civics teaching to be “inclusive of everybody.”
As written, that earlier House version would have required history teaching to include “the treatment and contributions of historic minorities, including but not limited to American Americans, Native Americans and women.”
Doyle said that the earlier version also had a provision he supported to expand personal finance instruction. Dropped from the final bill, the provision would have required students to complete a single credit course in personal finance to graduate high school.
“That was a big deal with the Democrats in the House Education Committee,” Doyle said.
Doyle agreed that the limited amount of available instruction time prevents every topic and point of view from being taught in civics and history classes. He also said it was appropriate for state lawmakers to influence broadly the content of civics instruction in West Virginia schools. Even if they’re already taught, spelling out the specific documents, concepts and ideologies to be taught is appropriate, he said.
But Doyle advocated including more history topics. “Of course, those things ought to be taught,” he said, “and there are a number of other things that ought to be taught as well. But the fact that you can’t cover everything is often used as an excuse to forget about women’s history and black history— and the history of Asian Americans.”
A graduate of Jefferson High School in 1960, Doyle recalled how 19th-century abolitionist John Brown and union organizer Mother Jones were omitted from his history classes at the time. The development of the Transcontinental Railroad was taught then, but the reliance on and poor treatment of Asian laborers to build the railroad was not covered, he said.
“In too many places in our country, the history created by women, while it may be talked about, is kind of created secondary,” he said. “History made by African Americans is considered secondary if it’s treated at all. It’s just a matter of being inclusive.”