The two biggest challenges to civic literacy among today’s young adults, according to Dubé, are quality and equity. To improve the outcomes, educators need to show students that the information is relevant and easy to digest, she said. They need to know it will make a difference in their lives. And, she argued, iCivics’ effectiveness has to do with its focus on gaming; it’s about employing the element of mystery and playfulness, encouraging kids to compete and discover. That, she said, is “what might overcome that disaffection.”
In general, disaffection seems to be a major obstacle in Arizona. Home to one of the highest rates of undocumented immigrants, the state is notorious for its harsh treatment of those believed to be in the country illegally. It’s also one of the few states where high-school dropout rates have actually increased, a trend that’s been largely attributed to specific districts, such as Tucson and Mesa, and the high percentage of Latino students.
Arizona also happens to be the epicenter of the country’s civic-ed efforts. O’Connor was an elected official and judge in Arizona before being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Reagan; she started iCivics in response to students’ poor outcomes and what she described as widespread misperceptions of the judiciary’s role. The Foss Institute, too, has Arizona roots: The Grand Canyon state spearheaded the move toward making the test a graduation requirement.
And, in an interesting juxtaposition to the Joe Foss initiative, Arizona’s Tucson school district is currently immersed in a high-profile battle over Mexican American Studies course—one that integrates topics ranging from social justice to multiculturalism. The course was banned after the state’s attorney general called the curriculum “very racially oriented and designed to create negative feelings about the United States.” A challenge to the ban’s constitutionality recently went to a U.S. appeals court, which largely rejected the plaintiffs’ complaint but said that they had enough evidence to merit to take the case back to trial in Arizona’s district court in Tucson. “Once that law goes away I think things are just gonna bloom because really people have to acknowledge the facts, the demographics—and at the end of the day, we have to prepare the youth for a multicultural era,” Tony Diaz, a Texas professor and activist who in response to the ban has spearheaded a nationwide effort to get ethnic studies into schools by “trafficking” books into classrooms, told me earlier this year. “If this law stays on the books I do not even know what to think for America. I cannot even imagine that [policymakers] would ultimately condone this law—it would not be America. Everything I have ever believed in this county would be a farce.”
Almost all of the states that have already adopted the Foss graduation requirement, as The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara points out, lean toward the right. Even the institute’s CEO, Frank Riggs, a former Republican U.S. representative, acknowledged in an interview with Vara that the institute has “the image of a more conservative organization.” But, Riggs added, the institute has “been very, very careful to promote our citizen-education initiative as a bipartisan, good-government initiative.” In its advocacy of the citizenship-test requirement, the nonprofit—which is named after a World War II Marines fighter and former North Dakota governor whose wife remains on the organization’s board—is certainly careful to avoid political (and, presumably, Anglocentric) rhetoric. Still, for what it’s worth, an analysis of the institute’s leadership page suggests that all the institute’s executives and board members are white, and many of them have right-leaning political affiliations and are powerful and likely wealthy. They include Sandra Froman, a former National Rifle Association president; John Elway, a former Denver Broncos quarterback who’s now one of its vice presidents; and Dan Quayle, who served as vice president under George H.W. Bush.