Saving Democracy, Pupil by Pupil

Posted on April 27, 2006

Between them, Sandra Day O'Connor and Roy Romer have had enough successful careers to satisfy half a dozen ambitious individuals. O'Connor was a rancher, a lawyer, a leader of the Arizona Senate and, most famously, the first woman to be a justice of the Supreme Court. Romer was a successful businessman, the governor of Colorado and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee; since 2000 he has been superintendent of schools in Los Angeles. When I saw them over coffee in Washington last week, the two senior citizens were proverbially breathing fire about the younger generation. What had stirred them was not worry about the youths' clothes, language or morals. It was a lot more basic -- a concern that these young people are coming out of school uninformed about the basics of American government and unengaged in the civic life of their country. Civics instruction, O'Connor said, "was routinely required at several levels in high school, and it was integrated into the grade-school curriculum as well. And that just has disappeared." The trend has been in place for some time, she said, citing a 2003 report from the Carnegie Corp., but it may have been accelerated by the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires a concentration on math and reading skills. The 2002 legislation was not intended to push other subjects out of the schools, but, Romer said, "Quite often, the tests that states will use for No Child Left Behind will be only on certain core subjects, such as language arts and math and sometimes science, and school systems, if not careful, can be warped into the neglect of social studies." O'Connor and Romer are the national spokesmen for a concerted pushback against these trends calling itself the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools ( ). Twenty-nine national organizations and a dozen notable private individuals have lent their support; foundation money as well is behind it. There are signs that the effort is beginning to succeed. Coalitions have been formed to promote the cause in at least 18 states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, has agreed to test students on their civic knowledge every four years instead of every eight. Two veteran representatives, Republican Mike Castle of Delaware and Democrat Dale Kildee of Michigan, have agreed to form a congressional caucus aimed at turning students into more knowledgeable citizens. The challenge is heightened by the influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, into this country. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has added an amendment to the stalled immigration reform bill creating a fund and incentives for preparing those recent arrivals for the duties and privileges of citizenship. But obviously, with voting participation as low as it is -- especially among young people -- many native-born Americans also need training in civics. Their latest enterprise could be as valuable a contribution to this society as anything that Romer and O'Connor ever have done. He is concerned about political apathy and cynicism; she worries about preserving the independence of the judiciary. Together they are reminding us that democracy, representative government and the rule of law don't just happen; they take work -- and the understanding that the public schools must provide. · The Treasury Department has informed me that it printed 2,100 copies of the Financial Report of the United States Government for fiscal 2005, not the 1,000 copies I reported recently. You may recall that this is the document that sets forth that the real budget deficit for last year on an accrual basis -- the way all corporations are required to keep their books -- was $760 billion, not the $319 billion on a cash basis widely reported. I am happy to correct the printing-order figure, but the shocked reaction to my column confirms that the grim news about our unfinanced obligations had not registered previously, even with many people who follow government closely. The report is also available on the Treasury Web site, so you can read it yourself. Speaking of the budget, President Bush made a first-rate choice when he named Rob Portman, now the head of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, to succeed Josh Bolten, the new White House chief of staff, as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Portman, a former Ohio representative and member of the Ways and Means Committee, is both substantive and politically skilled. Now, if only the Republicans in Congress would get serious about disciplining deficits, something might be accomplished.