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Bill Cirone: O’Connor a Powerful Advocate for Civics Education

The retired Supreme Court justice is on target in her objections to the No Child Left Behind mandates.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has many critics, from differing political perspectives, who take issue with its punitive nature, its lack of flexibility and its lack of consistency and funding. One prominent critic recently emerged who is surprising because of her stature and the nature of her objection to the law.

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Bill Cirone

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind are squeezing out many important subjects, but most particularly civics education.

In a speech before the National School Boards Association, she said, “One of the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act is that our schools have less time to focus on other subjects.”

She is working on a project that has a goal of improving civics education.

After serving on the Supreme Court for more than 24 years, Justice O’Connor, age 78, retired from the high court in January 2006. Since that time, she has been working on a variety of projects, including pushing for higher pay for judges, advocating for the elimination of elected state judiciaries and helping the former Soviet republics establish their judicial systems. Now, however, she has made it her primary focus to work on civics education in America.

It will be a big job. Despite the fact that government and civics are taught in every school, there is ample evidence that those lessons are not having the sticking power that we want. Surveys show that fewer than one-third of U.S. adults can name the three branches of the federal government — the legislative, executive and judiciary. O’Connor lamented the fact that more U.S. adults seem to know the judges on American Idol than the judges on the Supreme Court.

“If we look at the adult population, whatever civics education people got in the past didn’t seem to stick,” she said.

There are efforts under way that could make a real difference. The Our Courts project, for example, is a civics education program of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at Arizona State University in Tempe. Georgetown University is also a partner, along with teachers, content specialists and technology experts. The goal is to develop a free lesson database including text, video, audio and Flash animation.

O’Connor said she is pleased that the presidential campaign seems to be inspiring young people to become engaged in the political process.

“It is absolutely essential that we make sure civics is not squeezed out of our classrooms,” she said. “To me, it shocks my conscience that students would find civics dry or boring. It is about who we are as citizens.”

She is on target, and it is wonderful to have such a powerful and well-respected ally in the fight to retain civics education for all. In a democratic society, nothing could be more important.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.

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