Kansas Senate passes bill requiring civics test for high schoolers

By: - March 31, 2021 2:42 pm
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kansas, questioned wisdom of a Senate amendment forbidding KDHE from expanding a list of required child vaccinations, including a possible COVID-19 shot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kansas, questioned wisdom of a Senate amendment forbidding KDHE from expanding a list of required child vaccinations, including a possible COVID-19 shot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. Pat Pettey raised concerns during Senate debate Wednesday with jettisoning “what really works to help students learn” in favor of requiring high schoolers to pass a 60-question civics test before they receive a diploma.

Pettey, a Democrat and retired teacher from Kansas City, lectured Ellinwood Republican Sen. Alicia Straub about the Kansas State Board of Education’s exhaustive approach to improving social studies standards adopted in 2013.

“That was when there was a decision made that it wouldn’t just be based on the citizenship test, but would be based on understanding and fulfilling the job of a citizen,” Pettey said.

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, says during Senate debate Wednesday that proposed legislation requiring passage of a civics test would ensure “the foundations of our Constitution are taught in our schools.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The guidelines for public schools require knowledge of the three branches of government. Students should know the Constitution embodies the purpose, values and principles of American democracy. The course should be rigorous and relevant with instruction that integrates thinking skills and historic processes. Curriculum should include history, economics, geography, civics and humanity.

“Do you want our children who are graduating from high school to just regurgitate, or do you want them to be able to discern and think as a citizen of the United States?” Pettey said.

The Democrat initiated a 20-minute exchange with Straub, who formerly home schooled her kids, wasn’t familiar with the constitutional role of the Kansas State Board of Education to shape public school curriculum, didn’t read the board’s standards for civics learning, and didn’t know how those standards were formed.

Staub insisted the proposed civics quiz should be easy for any high schooler to pass, “if a teacher is adequately instructing on the principles an foundations of the U.S. Constitution.”

“By providing this test, we are just ensuring that the principles of our government and the foundations of our Constitution are taught in our schools,” Straub said.

The Senate passed House Bill 2039 by a 24-15 vote following a two-hour debate. The bill, which previously passed the House by a 69-54 vote, requires students to pass a civics test composed of 60 questions from the naturalization test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Teachers may use 20 multiple choice questions of their choosing as part of the test. There is no limit to the number of times a student can take the test in order to pass.

“I think this body can appreciate that in order to become a Kansas state senator, you do not need a high school diploma,” Straub said, under questioning from Pettey about imposing the new graduation requirement.

Pettey asked Straub to explain how she addressed civic engagement as a home educator.

“My children have a very extensive knowledge of not just American history and the U.S. Constitution, but world history,” Straub said.

Pettey: “Did you base their abilities on a test?”

Straub said she didn’t understand Pettey’s “qualms with this.”

Pettey: “I don’t understand the inability to respond to the question I asked. I mean, I taught for 36 years. I’d be glad to expound on things that I did within my classroom.”

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee, said the objections to requiring a civics test were “absurd.” After all, he said, it wasn’t like they were requiring students to pass a physics test. He pointed to a sample question: What month do we vote for president?

His homeschooled grandkids “know this stuff inside and out,” Thompson said.

“There’s no reason we can’t ask high school students to pass a basic test like this so that when they do come onto the voter rolls, they are able to be informed enough to make good decision,” Thompson said. “If not, if we don’t put this baseline request to them, they’re going to be railroaded like sheep in the future because they don’t understand how our government works. This is just — it’s crazy. It’s just basic information.”

The Senate on a procedural motion refused to consider an amendment from Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, that would have automatically preregistered students to vote when they pass the test.

However, senators adopted an amendment from Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, to direct the State Board of Education to develop financial literacy curriculum for public schools. The House will have to review that change when its members return to action next week.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said no teachers support the civics tests requirement. As someone who spent 20 years teaching American government, he said, people often ask him what to do to make education better.

“The answer is pay them and leave them alone,” Doll said. “Let them do their job.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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