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Chinn: A Civics Lesson for All of Us

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iba-chinn-scott“Do you trust the courts to be an effective check on the executive and legislative branches given your view that the protections of the 4th and 5th Amendments have been inadequate to stop the creation of a ‘National Surveillance State’,” I asked.

“While we don’t think that Congress should pass a so-called ‘superstatute’ that preempts other federal and state laws establishing protections for individuals against the government and private actors, we do think that Congress, and not the courts, should take the leading role on balancing the competing interests at stake in the National Security State – for example, by curbing the reach of the Patriot Act,” responded the constitutional expert.

The setting was a classroom at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on April 30. The event was the national finals of the We the People Competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education. I was a judge for that competition. The constitutional expert was a high school student from one of the 49 jurisdictions represented at the competition (47 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands).

So let’s start there – that this high school student, representing a panel of four students assigned to the topic of “Twenty-first Century Challenges to American Constitutional Democracy” was more articulate on the issue than most of the lawyers I know. And through the course of my two days judging the student panels, it is fair to say that this knowledgeable student wasn’t alone. Many of his peers from across the country met and exceeded what we would think even most enlightened Americans would know about the Constitution, the principles it is based on, and its historical application. Being a judge for a competition like this is one of the best things you’ll ever do to promote your faith in America and its values. (The other one is to take part in or observe a naturalization ceremony.)

For an appeal to your home state pride, you should know that the Indiana team (from Munster High School) finished a lofty fifth out of the 56 teams participating. Because they made it to the final round, they competed in a Congressional hearing room at the U.S. Capitol. Indiana has a strong network of We the People teams and the Indiana Bar Foundation coordinates this and other civic education programs around the state.

But there is something even more challenging on the horizon for civic education than the competition itself. You guessed it: funding. There is probably more money spent copying the paperwork for the Defense Reauthorization Act (seriously . . . it is $662 Billion in 2012) than it would take to fund every well-known civic education program in the country. Yet federal funding has been cut for civic education in recent years. (Next time someone tells you Congressional earmarks are always bad, think about losing the ones supporting civic education.) This has led to canceled and diminished programs and has also led to competition among civic education providers for precious grant dollars. Competitive grant funding may make sense for encouraging the development of the best ideas in new spheres or in ones needing reform. But does that really fit civics education? Don’t we want more organizations teaching more kids the things that renew American Democracy?

The American Bar Association too has a major commitment to promoting civic education, having established the ABA Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools in 2010. My sense is that this Commission is also caught up in the debates over funding. I respectfully submit that the Commission’s special advisor, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is wrong when she excuses federal and state law makers for budget cuts to civic education programs arguing that civic educators should be doing more with less. I think we should challenge ourselves to do more with less, but that we should also just have more to do more with.

Above, I said that judging high school civic competitors and attending naturalization ceremonies were the two most affirming things to promote your faith in American values. The third, in my book, is a combination of the first two — judging high school civics competitors who are first-generation children of immigrants on a constitutional question regarding immigration. I got to do that over the national finals weekend. It was just one part of my civics lesson.•

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