Kentucky can and should increase civic education

Published 3:37 pm Thursday, March 14, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The test results are in, and Kentucky is barely passing when it comes to civic health. Civic education is desperately needed in our schools, and our lawmakers need to act now to ensure our children will grow into adults capable of self-government. 

My office recently conducted a Civic Health Assessment, with mixed results. Relative to the rest of the country, Kentuckians seem to be more accepting of other viewpoints. Our Assessment found that 75 percent of Kentuckians are friends with people who have opposing viewpoints, and 61 percent think it is better for politicians to compromise than to constantly bicker.

Another bright spot in the Assessment was that just 19 percent of Kentuckians get their news primarily from social media. Kentuckians overwhelmingly get their news from legitimate, local news outlets, whether television or newspaper.

Email newsletter signup

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. 

When Kentuckians were surveyed on their civic knowledge, they didn’t pass. Just half could name the three branches of government. Under half could name a local elected official. That number dropped further when asked to name a legislator or constitutional officer. For some constitutional offices, just 30 percent of Kentuckians could identify the officeholder – that’s despite the survey taking place in the year during elections for these offices.  

We did not do much better when we looked at social civics – the relationship between civic health and social interaction. Those who mix civics and personal relationships tend to be the most civically engaged and healthy. Our survey found that 54 percent of Kentuckians talk about politics with family or friends a few times a week and just 38 percent had contacted a public official in the past year. 

There are things we can do to set up future generations for success. I have asked the Legislature to require civics education in all Kentucky high schools, as we are one of the few states that do not. Our kids deserve better than to be set up for failure. 

We also need a robust civics exam for our high school graduates. The current test is woefully inadequate and a poor measure of civic understanding.

These two requirements are not only logical moves to set up a future of engaged citizens, but they can reap benefits across the board. Research from Harvard and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that many of the skills that are required to succeed in the 21st century workforce – like civility and cooperation – are associated with higher levels of civic education. 

Let’s take this Civic Learning Week to think about the importance of civics and push our state leaders to do more to improve our children’s future. 

Michael Adams is Kentucky’s secretary of state.