Lack of basic U.S. knowledge prompts Oregon lawmakers to take action

A recent caller to his office wanted him to vote to confirm Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general.

There was just one major problem with the caller’s request: Gene Whisnant is a state representative in Oregon. The Republican from Sunriver has no more authority to vote for a president’s nominee than a Canadian Mountie has to give a driver in Oregon a speeding ticket.

Whisnant cited the call from a constituent during an interview last week as an example of the need for better civics education.

“You say, I want everyone to vote, and I do want everyone to vote, but it’s like I wish they would be informed by what’s going on,” he said.

And it wouldn’t hurt if students could be better informed about how to manage their money, too.

“And financial literacy -- my God, look at the housing crisis, look at how many students (are) in debt,” he said.

Concerned about the state of civics and financial literacy education in the state, Whisnant has introduced two bills this year to encourage school districts to offer students some kind of way of getting civics and financial education.

Whisnant Bills: House Bill 2219 | House Bill 2229

The issue is on the mind of another Oregon lawmaker, too. Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, has introduced a bill to require students to demonstrate a proficiency in civics before they can graduate high school.

Evans Bill: House Bill 2691

During his testimony last week before the House Committee on Education, he said a strong understanding of civics was essential for the survival of democracy.

“(The bill) addresses a well-known problem facing our democracy – the growing schism between groups of citizens who have widely varying levels of civic awareness, knowledge and skills," he said. "While there’s always been and will always be differences of opinion about our government, our history is a story of people finding common cause to solve problems, and I believe this narrative is now at risk.”

Evans said his bill would give flexibility to school districts to figure out how to meet the requirements.

Having a solid education in civics is recognized by most to be a laudable goal, and there is agreement there is a problem. During the public hearing, Trish Garner, with the American Association of University Women, pointed to a 2016 University of Pennsylvania survey that found only a quarter of Americans could name all three branches of government.

But Barbara Rost, of the Classroom Law Project, questioned whether requiring such education would result in the hoped-for results. Additionally, committee Chair Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, noted that there are already civics education requirements in state law.

And in tight budget times it might not be possible to devote the necessary resources to it. In fact, Whisnant, who tried to get similar legislation passed in 2005, amended his current bills to drop the word “ensure,” or any implication of requiring the education, and replace it with the word “encourage.” He said if he didn’t, his bill would die.

Since it wouldn’t be mandated, he said making sure it would get done would depend on school leaders.

“It’d be nice to be sure that everyone knows that we have three branches of government and state legislators don’t vote for attorney general of the United States,” he said.

Test your knowledge. Here are 10 questions from U.S. Citizen & Immigration:

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