TRENTON – Middle school students in New Jersey will be required to receive civics instruction, under a law enacted Friday.

The New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University will be directed to prepare civics curriculum guidelines for local school boards. The center will also provide professional development and other resources for high school social studies teachers as they fulfill the requirement of integrating civics into the existing United States history course.

Gov. Phil Murphy said New Jersey is one of a minority of states not to require civics to be taught in middle school. The change takes effect in the 2022-23 school year.

“Civics is learning that democracy doesn’t just happen,” Murphy said. “Once started, a democracy must be maintained to survive. It must be nurtured. It must be tended to. And civics is how among other things, big lies are countered with even bigger truths.”

State law requires two years of history courses in high school that are supposed to include civics, economics and New Jersey history, but the legislation said most districts’ curriculum focus solely on United States history. The state requires community civics to be taught in an elementary grade, but not middle-school grades.

The state Department of Education found that just 29 of 522 districts that serve grades 6 through 8 offer a distinct course in civics education.

“The teaching of civic responsibility isn’t something that can be just left as a cursory note at the end of a discussion on current events or as a footnote to a lesson on the three branches of government or as an afterthought to geography,” Murphy said. “Not when the future of our democracy is so vital.”

“The additional instruction that students will receive will ultimately lead to a well-informed and well-rounded citizenry,” said acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.

“I think we all appreciate how critical teaching civics is to the continuation of our democracy,” said Arlene Gardner, president of the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers.

“Civics is who we are as a society. It’s who our legacy is. It’s who our future is,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. R-Union. “And being able to make sure that we have a constant and structured civics education allows for individuals to have the tools to develop their own better futures, their own communities, their own knowledge base and think critically of the issues impacting our society.”

Some Senate Democrats linked the bill to the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building in a riot that sought to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the November election.

Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said there is a “civics crisis in this country.”

“The crisis reached a breaking point after the November election, which culminated in an insurrection at our U.S. Capitol in January,” Turner said. “Safeguarding our democracy is now more urgent than ever, and one of the best ways we can do that is by teaching our future generations about the importance of civic skills, engagement, and participation and the value of a democratic process.”

“The events that transpired on Jan. 6 represent one of the darkest days in American history. It not only showed the dark underbelly of our nation, but also the vital importance of civics education,” said Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington. “We need to properly educate our young people so they can become critical thinkers who are able to discern truth from fiction.”

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The legislation is known as “Laura Wooten’s Law,” in honor of the longest continuously serving poll worker in American history. Wooten, who lived in Princeton, worked polls in New Jersey for 79 years before passing away in 2019 at age 98.

“Laura Wooten’s life is a study in civics,” Murphy said.

“My mother would be so honored to know that a bill would be passed recognizing her legacy of civic responsibility,” said Yvonne Hill, Wooten’s daughter. “She always felt that the youth should be involved in exercising the hard-fought right to vote and help make change. Her famous words were: ‘Don’t say you can’t make a difference. How can you make a difference if you don’t vote?’”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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