By TOM FAHEY
State House Bureau Chief
Friday, Jul. 31, 2009

CONCORD, NH – A group of teachers, lawyers, judges and others will begin next month shaping proposed improvements in civics education, backed with support from retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.

The Civics Task Force of the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society won't try to dictate a curriculum to schools, members said yesterday. Instead, it plans to define what high schoolers should understand about how their government works, and to suggest ways to get there. Panel members agreed yesterday that civics needs to be wrapped into a variety of subjects over years of schooling, not taught as an exclusive course.

A report the society issued last December found that civics education in New Hampshire is inconsistent, varying from one school to another based on interest and resources of each district and its teachers.

Overall, from kindergarten through high school the report said, "there are no meaningful core civics education goals for public school students."

Society President Mary Susan Leahy said the task force aims to correct that. She said Souter decided to join the effort earlier this year, influenced by work that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor did in Arizona. Souter's involvement raised the New Hampshire effort's profile considerably.

"I'm sure many of you would not be sitting at this table today without that tie," she said to reporters at the Supreme Court yesterday. Souter, who will be speaking on civics education at the American Bar Associations meeting in Chicago this weekend, was not at the session.

Leahy said the Civics Task Force will start work in September and issue a report by the end of this year.

Four times since 2001, the state Legislature has rejected bills that would have required civics courses in public schools.

Kathleen Murphy, director of instruction at the state Department of Education, said the state's minimum school standards require a measure of civics education, but the focus is on high school.

"By then it's too late," Murphy said.

Schools now emphasize math and science because of rigid performance goals in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, she said.

"Social studies have been left behind," Murphy said.

Thomas C. Galligan , president of Colby-Sawyer College and former dean of the University of Tennessee Law School, and John D. Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, will chair the task force.

Galligan said, "We want to define what we think every graduate of every high school should know about their democracy ... and to know what their responsibility as citizens are."

The overall intent is set goals for what students should know when they graduate high school, then to wrap civics education into other subjects starting early in school.

Susan Robichaud, a fourth-grade teacher at Beaver Meadow Elementary in Concord, said children as young as 5 grasp the basic concepts of civic life.

"As they get older, they take that foundation with them and it serves as something they can base their beliefs on, instead of a TV show," she said.

She has already drawn up a civics curriculum on justice for her classes, developed under sponsorship of the society.

Others on the panel noted that Souter himself has stated that his understanding and devotion to civic life began as a child, when he attended town meetings with his parents.

Bill Veillette, executive director of the New Hampshire Historical Society, said the goal is a deep understanding of government and civic life, not counting lawmakers or memorizing dates.

"This is not Trivial Pursuit," he said. "The goal is for kids to understand the process, and that our system doesn't work unless citizens are involved."