Generation Citizen Public Testimony on New York State Education Budget

February 20, 2019

Members of the Joint Budget Elementary and Secondary Education Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit budget testify on behalf of Generation Citizen about the New York State Education budget. Generation Citizen (“GC”) is a nine-year-old national nonprofit dedicated to bringing civics education back into the classroom through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. Action Civics is a “student-centered, project-based approach to civics education that develops the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st century democratic practice” (National Action Civics Collaborative). It differs from normative, knowledge-based civic education in the same way that taking any “hands-on,” project-based, or experiential course differs from reading a textbook. Students learn about democratic structures and processes by directly engaging with them, as well as with each other, to address one or more issues they care about, which are impacting their community.

GC is the largest Action Civics education organization with a national model. This year, GC will educate approximately 18,000 students through our work in New York City and 5 additional regional sites: Rhode Island, where we were founded on Brown University’s campus; Massachusetts; the Bay Area, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Central Texas. GC partners with teachers and schools to help them implement our standards-aligned Action Civics education program over the course of a semester, often added to History, Social Studies, the state-mandated Participation in Government class, or similar in-school class time.

We deploy two models to implement our Action Civics curriculum: college volunteer, or Democracy Coach model; and Teacher-led professional development model. Our two models are unified by a shared Action Civics curriculum, our innovative approach to advocacy planning and support, and supplemental resources for students, teachers, and schools. Our goal is to ensure that every student in the United States gains the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st century democracy as active, lifelong citizens.

GCNYC has educated over 21,000 New York City middle and high school students and helped them find their voice to advocate for systemic local policy reform through our Action Civics curriculum, making the site the largest and flagship in the organization. GCNYC is partnering with over 200 classrooms in over 50 schools in New York, including our first partnership outside of New York City in the Patchogue-Medford school district, to educate over 5,300 students this school year.  GC acknowledges the importance of bringing meaningful, student-centered Action Civics experiences into our schools.  New York State must prioritize the support of teachers to implement student-driven civics capstone projects in their classrooms and allocate funding to develop assessments of classroom practices and student outcomes.

Over the course of a semester of Action Civics, students are gaining the tools necessary to participate in 21st century democracy.  At Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a class of middle school students focused on the availability of affordable health foods in their neighborhood. They were frustrated that healthy food was not accessible to students and began exploring the rules and regulations governing public school cafeterias in NYC. After their research, they set a goal to raise the caliber of schools’ cafeterias in terms of healthy food options as well as sanitation and advocated in support of a City Council bill that required school cafeterias to publicize their health inspection scores.  Their lobbying efforts were successful, and the bill was recently passed into law by New York City Council. This accomplishment brought awareness and accountability to the state of school dining facilities as well as expanded and deepened discourse about healthier food options in public schools among students and in their homes and communities. On a personal level, students develop the civic skills and civic mindset that they can participate in our democracy and make change in their communities.

While we know that all students take Participation in Government in high school, we also know that, as implemented, not every student has meaningful civic engagement opportunities like the example above. As implemented, PIG does not educate students about local democratic structure, help them learn about processes by engaging in those processes, or how to research, analyze, propose, debate, and advocate for their collectively determined solution(s). For most students in New York, PIG as implemented is civics as usual, a largely passive form of learning that is often a senior year after-thought based on rote memorization of random government facts.

The fact that PIG is being implemented inconsistently only further widens the Civic Engagement Gap.  In underserved school districts statewide, young people are receiving unequal civic  learning opportunities, especially in rural, urban, and low-income schools.  The reality is that students from rural and low socioeconomic urban communities are 50 percent less likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes.  Young people from these communities are not less likely to want to make a difference in their communities; however, this opportunity gap inhibits many young people from learning tools to participate and make change in our 21st century democracy. 

Inequitable funding continues to plague New York State.  From the CFE ruling, we know that New York State is violating students’ fundamental right to a “sound and basic education.”  The availability of resources and funding directly affect student opportunities and outcomes, and our state is failing to provide that to many schools and districts that need it the most. Based on what we have seen in select districts, states, and programs, it is estimated that the approximate annual cost of implementing Action Civics statewide would be approximately $10.8 million per year.  It is important that NYSED focuses on the equitable allocation of resources with a specific focus on high-need districts, including Title I schools, in order to ensure that this work supports those students who need it the most and does not deepen the Civic Engagement Gap already plaguing such schools.

Teaching civics well requires robust professional development and curricular resources from the state in order to be taken seriously by district leaders. Even if teachers wanted to teach PIG as intended, many are not provided the resources or training necessary to do so effectively. There are very few resources or professional development courses designed to equip educators to navigate the discussion and debate of community issues or local democratic structures, and implement nonpartisan, student-led project-based learning in the classroom.  In order to do this, New York State must also prioritize the support of teachers to implement this work in their classrooms. 

In addition to updating curriculum standards, New York State must allocate funding and resources to develop assessments of classroom practices and student outcomes.  Teachers need to be able to ensure that their students develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy.  In order to that that, there must be a system in place to help teachers measure student learning and ensure that they are making significant growth.

We know that there are many ways to bring young people and their ideas to the table.  We enthusiastically support Governor Cuomo’s proposal to create New York’s first Youth Council.  At GC, we see that young people want to participate in their democracy, but are not always given the opportunity to do so.  We support this proposal to elevate youth voice and leadership on shaping issues that affect young people and, if adopted, we look forward to partnering with the Governor and State legislators to recommend youth to participate.

It is incumbent upon us as a state to adopt a rigorous definition of civic readiness and invest in professional development to prepare educators to teach modernized civics standards. Most importantly, NYSED must distribute funding equitably to districts, prioritizing those with greatest need to help them implement new mandates. Doing so would help strengthen New York’s democracy by ensuring that more New Yorkers have the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st-century democracy; and hopefully vote in all elections. Anything less would only widen the Civic Engagement Gap.

We appreciate the committee’s investment in our state’s students and teachers, and GC encourages state policymakers to prioritize the equitable implementation and support of civics project-based learning throughout the state.

We are available at your convenience at dgetachew@generationcitizen.org or mmintz@generationcitizen.org to answer any questions you may have as you delve deeper into this important and timely issue.

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