Success Story: Civic Education Legislation Passed In NC

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Usually it takes a number of years to pass major legislation. The civic education legislation passed in North Carolina in 2003 was a striking exception. The measure was introduced in March of 2003 and became law in July of that year. The story illustrates very clearly the importance of foundation funding of organizations that engage in advocacy. Here is how it happened.

Sound Financial Backing, Good Research and a Strong Coalition
The North Carolina Civic Education Consortium is a nonprofit partnership based in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The group has received substantial funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, and many other private sources. Its focus has been on revitalizing civic education and the engagement of young people, since 1997. The foundations support The Consortium because part of its work is to educate the public policymakers about good civic education programs and policies that support such programs.

The Consortium is comprised of a non-partisan coalition of more than 190 partners including nonprofits, local and state government, education, foundations and the legal profession. One of their early objectives was to increase statewide visibility and support for civic education, with the goal of impacting state and local education. They decided that the major push for such visibility and policy change would come after their release of a statewide study of civic competencies, the North Carolina Civic Index, released in May of 2003. However, well before May 2003, they learned that there was already support for their efforts in high places.

A Committed Legislator
A new state legislator, Senator Joe Sam Queen from Waynesville, had a life-long interest in civic affairs and said that his experiences in school had fostered that interest. He wanted today's students to have these same opportunities. In March 2003, he asked the Civic Education Consortium director Debra Henzey to help him draft new legislation calling for more civic education activities in schools. Ms. Henzey connected Senator Queen's successful experiences in schools with findings in the Civic Index, which led to Senator Queen introducing a bill calling for stronger student councils, consistent exposure to interactive current events discussions and increased school-based service opportunities for students.

The bill quickly passed out of the Senate Education Committee, but met some resistance from state education leadership because of fears that many new mandates, especially No Child Left Behind, would place undue burdens on public schools. Senator Queen made several revisions to address their concerns, but the bill was stalled in the Appropriations Committee for several weeks due to a small financing requirement placed in the bill to implement several of its provisions.

A Key Mailing to All Legislators
In the meantime, The Consortium released the Civic Index results to the public in May of 2003. As a follow-up to this and to support the legislation, The Consortium also mailed a copy to all state legislators, noting dismal results on a question directly related to public understanding of the state legislature's responsibilities. The timing of this release likely played a key role in Senator Queen securing House and Senate leadership support to place the provisions of his bill into the state budget bill to assure its safe passage. The legislature was under the gun to get the budget passed by June 30 to avoid a state government shutdown, so it was most unexpected that special provisions on civic education could be inserted and accepted so swiftly. The special provisions included backing for stronger student councils, consistent exposure to interactive current events discussions in all middle and high school grade levels, and increased school-based service opportunities for students. The provisions also included funding to implement several provisions in the bill.

In Summary
The success of this effort demonstrates that one of the very best ways for a foundation to substantially increase the impact of its grant dollars is to fund groups that engage in advocacy. The multiplier effect of foundations providing grant funds to groups that advocate very often results in much greater benefit to the community than the same amount of money granted for funding direct services.

According to Ms. Henzey, "We never expected to see this legislation passed as part of a very controversial and time-pressured budget bill. However, it shows that one legislator with a genuine concern and commitment, like Senator Queen, can make a huge difference, especially when armed with good data to make his case and a broad-based consortium of interested and involved groups behind him.”

Although many of the bill's provisions are not mandatory, the new State Board of Education Chairman, Howard Lee, and State Department of Education staff stated publicly that they would carry out the legislation’s provisions within two years. The Consortium believes that his commitment also was fueled by the North Carolina Civic Index findings, which can be accessed at: www.civics.org.

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