opinion Newport Rhode Island

How many branches are in our federal government? It’s not a trick question, but a new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that one in three people cannot name even one branch of the federal government. There are three—the legislature (made up of the House and Senate) the executive (the president) and the judiciary (the federal courts). The same three branches hold true on a state level.

Another staggering finding in this study is that nearly four out of 10 people cannot name one of the five rights protected by the First Amendment of our United States Constitution. Less than half named the right to free speech, only 15 percent named freedom of religion, and 14 percent named freedom of the press. The right to peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government were barely mentioned.

It seems there’s little time left in a school day for civics education anymore. That’s too bad. How can anyone be expected to make smart decisions if they don’t care about how government works, who becomes president or who should be elected? Ask one of your co-workers how a bill is passed and then brace yourself for the eyes rolling around.

Civics is the study of how government works and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. Knowledge is the foundation for citizen participation.

We require immigrants to pass a civics test where they must get 60 percent correct to become a naturalized citizen. How many high school students can pass that test? How many adult citizens can pass that test? Name one of the two responsibilities of a U.S. citizen. (The answer is at the end of this column).

About 20 states have passed civics education legislation requiring high school students to correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions on U.S. citizenship civics test as a condition for graduation. However, without state funding, it is an unfunded mandate.

We could do more in Rhode Island, not just for students but for every adult. Generation Citizen was founded in 2009 by a Brown University graduate, Scott Warren. The mission is to ensure that every student (and I would add adult) in the United States receives an effective “action civics” education that provides knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active citizens.

Generation Citizen trains the teacher, who then provide civics lessons in their social studies classroom. GC started in four Providence public school classrooms and is now in Pawtucket, Central Falls, Newport and Bristol-Warren, as well as six other states in the country. The cost is minimal, but superintendents have to work it into their school budget (www.generationcitizen.org). The cities and towns that have taken advantage of Generation Citizen deserve thanks, as well as North Kingstown, which has developed its own civics education curriculum.

Civics education builds political engagement and knowledge. It’s how we nurture and grow tomorrow’s leaders and community advocates. You don’t have to run for office, but you do have to be engaged, care about how government works, and understand why a judicial system matters. Civic education is critical to America’s democracy and our economy in the 21st century.

The two responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen are to serve on a jury and to vote in a federal election. (I would argue in local and state elections, too!) Civics matters. A democratic government cannot function without the citizens’ participation.

Rep.Deborah Ruggiero- Jamestown/Middletown- is chairwoman of House Committee on Small Business Committee and sub-chair on House Finance Committee.