WNA Foundation launches statewide effort to bolster civic engagement

By Julia Hunter
Wisconsin Newspaper Association

In recent years, civic education in schools across the country has been on the decline.

Wisconsin Civics Games logoPrior to the 1960s, courses encouraging students to explore their role as citizens and discuss current issues were common. Today, such classes are rare. Civic education instead is typically rolled into a course about American government and little time is devoted to exploring how students can participate in the democratic process, according to a recent survey from the National Center for Learning and Citizenship.

Consequences of the shift were evident in the results of the last national civics assessment, in which only 24 percent of high school seniors scored at or above proficient.

That’s why the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation decided to launch the Wisconsin Civics Games, a statewide civics bowl for high school students. The Civics Games feature local, regional and statewide competitions. The inaugural state championship will be held Feb. 23, 2019, at the State Capitol in Madison.

To help students prepare, newspapers across the state will highlight stories that provide real-life, local examples of how the political process works and how it affects them.

“Newspapers are critical to the civic life of a community,” said WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett. “It’s their role to inform the public and encourage a dialogue.

“We hope the Civics Games will build on that important mission by empowering and encouraging young men and women across Wisconsin to become engaged with government on a local and statewide level.”

WNA Foundation Board Member Eve Galanter of Madison, who is spearheading the effort, brought the idea to the board after reading about the challenges municipalities face finding candidates for local government positions.

According to a 2016 survey from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, 56 percent of communities had no more than one candidate for each board or council position in their most recent election. Only 5 percent of respondents said they typically had two or more candidates per seat.

“I want our students to feel as passionate about public service as I do,” said WNA Foundation Board Member Eve Galanter, who previously served on the Madison Common Council and as former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl’s district director. “I believe the concept of team competition will appeal to students and encourage the next generation to help restore the civic and civil engagement that has been part of our democratic process in Wisconsin for so long.”

In recognition of the urgent need for civic education, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law requiring students to pass the U.S. citizenship test to graduate. The requirement, which went into effect last year, lacked a provision providing resources to help school districts prepare students for the test.

The Civics Games can help fill that void, Bennett said.

The Civics Games are done in partnership with WisconsinEye, Wisconsin Policy Forum, WisPolitics.com and the Girl Scout Councils of Wisconsin. Sponsors include the Evjue Foundation, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, Polco.us, Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies and the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Civics Games teams shall include up to four students. Schools interested in registering a team should sign up by Nov. 5 at wisconsincivicsgames.com.

Each team that signs up will be mailed a teacher toolkit to help students prepare. Additional resources to help students get ready are available online at wisconsincivicsgames.com.