Funding Decisions Pivotal To Massachusetts Civics Education Pursuit

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By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

After state spending in the civics education trust fund was bumped up by 33 percent last year, advocates are urging lawmakers to appropriate even more this year, as the governor recommends cutting back.

The state government put $1.5 million per year into the Civic Project Trust Fund for the first three years after it was created in a 2018 statute. The fund grants money for student-led civics projects, the development of history and social science curriculum, and professional development training for teachers.

Last year, advocates got more funding for the program, and state spending was increased to $2 million in fiscal year 2023 (which ends this coming June 30). Now, those advocates are pushing for another 33 percent increase, to $3 million, though Governor Maura Healey’s recommended budget would decrease the appropriation back to $1.5 million.

So far, $2.5 million from the fund has gone directly to school districts for student-led civics projects and teacher training. The other half of the funds goes to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop statewide curriculum and professional development training, according to associate commissioner Erin Hashimoto-Martell.

“Each year we receive far more applications for the grants than we are able to fund. It really just shows the interest and the desire for schools and districts,” Hashimoto-Martell said.

The Boston School District has received 89 percent of the funds the district has requested through the trust fund since 2020, getting a total of $158,250. The state has allocated $60,000 to Brockton schools — 57 percent of that district’s requested amount over three years — and some districts such as East Bridgewater and Pembroke have not yet received any funding despite applying twice, according to data collected by civic education group Discovering Justice.

“There are disparities across districts. Some districts have the resources to have somebody waking up every single day thinking about, ‘O.K., is every student really being offered the opportunity to do an important project at the high school level?’ or just some districts have somebody that’s checking in on their teachers to make sure that those projects are moving along, and others don’t,” said state Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill), a supporter of the 2018 civics law.

Students who have participated in programs funded by the law joined advocates and lawmakers at the Massachusetts State House on Wednesday afternoon, March 8 to share their stories.

Derek Doherty, a teacher at Mildred Avenue kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in Mattapan, said the policy debate and mock trial teams that he coaches give students an opportunity to learn public speaking skills and grow to be “future leaders.”

His student, sixth grader Eslenny Rosa, said she struggled with communication and “having the confidence to speak up” until she joined a civics program led by Discovering Justice this past fall.

“I now understand better why things work the way they do,” Rosa said. “And after completing the 10-week program, things make more sense with current events happening within our society. It is important for students to understand more about the criminal justice system and our amendments.”

Rosa said she hopes other students across the state have the same civics education opportunities she had.

“I’ve seen students like Eslenny find their voice and their confidence. Once you’ve delivered arguments to a real federal judge in a real federal courthouse, which our students do through Discovering Justice, future public speaking opportunities seem like a walk in the park,” Doherty said.

The 2018 law signed by former Governor Charlie Baker made it a requirement for public high schools and school districts serving eighth-grade students to provide at least one student-led, non-partisan civics project for each student.


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