A bill designed to improve civics and government education in the Garden State passed through the State Senate Jan. 28.
The bill would require each board of education to provide a middle school civics course beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. Curriculum would be developed by the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University.
The bill, sponsored by State Sens. Tom Kean (R-21), M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), Shirley Turner (D-15), Troy Singleton (D-7), and Linda Greenstein (D-14), is named Laura Wooten’s Law to honor Mrs. Wooten’s lifetime of civic service. Born in Goldsboro, NC, Mrs. Wooten was the longest serving poll volunteer in the nation, serving at local general election polls for 79 years.
New Jersey’s Senate Democrats argued the civics curriculum is needed now more than ever, with the Capitol Riots Jan. 6 a boiling point in an ongoing civics crisis. State Sen. Turner said the November election which resulted in an insurrection represented a threat to the nation.
“Safeguarding our democracy is now more urgent than ever, and one of the best ways we can do that is by teaching our future generations about the importance of civics skills, engagement, and participation and the value of a democratic process,” said Turner.
Sen. Singleton echoed the statement, calling Jan. 6 “one of the darkest days in American history.”
“We need to properly educate our young people so they can become critical thinkers that are able to discern truth from fiction. They must understand the foundations of our representative democracy, and take a participatory role in it,” he said.
State Sen. Greenstein lamented how many Americans were unfamiliar with the operations of government, and argued they must be educated to contend with the issue the nation was facing.
“According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only around 26% of Americans can name the three branches of government. That means 74% of Americans do not understand how their government works, and this is a serious issue,” she said.
Meanwhile, only 39% of schools within New Jersey voluntarily offered a civics course to all students, according to the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers.
State Sen. Kean noted that addressing this gap could empower young students.
“All students should have the opportunity to learn about the rights of citizens, the function of government, and the values that underpin American democracy. This legislation will give students the skills and knowledge they need to actively participate in a democratic society,” he said.
Learning about Laura Wooten
Mrs. Wooten passed away in March 2019 at the age of 98. She was an elder at the First Baptist Church of Princeton, and worked both at Princeton Medical Center and Princeton University.
At the time of her passing, Princeton University memorialized her, noting she had never missed an election day. Gov. Phil Murphy called her the “moral voice of the state,” and in a 2018 question and answer session, Wooten detailed her beliefs on the right to vote.
“Voting is your voice so if you don’t go out and vote for things, there will never be any changes. That’s the only way you’ll get changes, is to vote. The privilege in a democracy of being able to vote means a lot to me. Some people use the excuse ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ Well of course it’s not going to count if you don’t vote!” she stated.