PHOENIX (AP) – Arizona lawmakers wasted no time in pushing through their first priority of the 2015 legislative session, but the measure had nothing to do with the state's growing deficit and giant K-12 education shortfall.
Arizona become the first state in the nation to approve legislation requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test on civics before they can graduate — part of a growing nationwide effort to boost civics education. The bill cruised through the Republican-controlled Legislature and was signed by newly elected GOP Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday evening.
The swift action comes as states around the country take up similar measures, driven primarily by a conservative institute whose motto is "Patriotism Matters." The leader of the organization is former Rep. Frank Riggs, who came in last in the Arizona GOP gubernatorial primary after running a hard-right campaign focused on immigration and anti-Obama rhetoric.
The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt it by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year. The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelming approved the same measure Thursday, but Arizona's proposal was the first to pass a full Legislature.
The Foss Institute created a civics institute to promote the test to state legislatures as a way to increase knowledge of basic government by students.
"Its genesis is basically an extension of our original mission in trying to ensure the delivery the very basics civics education that every high school graduate should have," said Riggs, a former California congressman.
The proposal requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test new citizens must pass. The test includes questions about the Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights and U.S. presidents. Passage would be required to earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-2017 school year.
The bill had the support of all 53 Republicans in the House and Senate, plus 10 of 27 Democrats.
But opponents questioned whether the test, which relies on memorization, is the best way to engage students in civics education. And they also wonder what message it sends when the bill was the first order of business at a time when the state is facing a large deficit in the coming 18 months and a court order to repay schools for funding the Legislature cut during the recession that approaches $3 billion.
"In the midst of a budget crisis, after we purposely underfunded our public schools, we rush this piece of legislation through in the first week even before we've addressed the investment the courts have ordered us to (pay) to our public schools," Rep. Juan Mendez said in explaining his opposition.
In addition, Ducey cited a survey that was discredited five years ago to argue that the state's students are performing dismally on civics and that a new test is needed. In his state of the state address, Ducey said 96 percent of students can't pass a basic civics test. But the survey Ducey relied upon was done for the Goldwater Institute, and the conservative think tank withdrew the results in 2009 after a company that conducted the survey failed to show its basic research met Goldwater's standards.
The House sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, on Thursday cited a federal study that said two-thirds of students measured below proficiency in civics.
"So this is alarming, because ... if our students don't understand that we have fundamental rights, given to us, afforded to us by our Constitution, things like freedom of the press, like conversation, like assembly, like religion, like speech, can that be good?"
Ducey called on the Legislature to make the civics test the first bill to hit his desk as governor. He said studies show that students don't know enough about basic government to grow into effective citizens.
"These are our children, and not long from now, it will be for them to vote on who sits in your chairs and who stands at this podium," Ducey said in his State of the State address Monday. "How can we expect them to protect the principles on which this country was founded, if we are not preparing them for that task right now?"
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an Arizona native, has supported the initiative. She's made civics education a prime focus in recent years.
"We're failing to impart the basic knowledge young people need to know to be effective citizens," O'Connor said at an event in New Hampshire in September. "In too many schools, the subject of civics is considered an elective or peripheral subject."
Republican Arizona Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough, sponsoring the bill in his chamber, called the test a needed measure.
"Requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet, but I think is a step, a small step forward," he said. "And I think we need to encourage the people of America to become more aware of the values of America."
A Democratic senator who opposed the bill, David Bradley, said passing the test would do nothing to make good citizens.
"Don't be fooled into thinking that this does it, that this solves some bigger problem, because it doesn't," Bradley said on the Senate floor. "My point now is tests don't make citizens, citizens are tested by their actions."
A high school government teacher, Joe Thomas of Mesa, said he was concerned that having students take a 100-question test would take up an entire class period and is not an effective way of getting students engaged in civics. He said the test is will require rote memorization rather than something that promotes critical thinking.
"The interest is promoting civics and we want to see students engaged," Thomas said. "I don't know if a test engages students."