By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

June 13, 2023

As middle schools across the state prepare to implement the new civics curriculum for sixth graders, the Indiana Bar Foundation is launching the Indiana Civics Coalition to promote civic health awareness among all Hoosiers.

The coalition, announced during the bar foundation’s inaugural Civics Summit in April, held its first meeting June 8 with more than 50 people joining the video conference call. Charles Dunlap, bar foundation president and CEO, sketched the vision of the new group as bringing together individuals, community organizations and businesses that will develop ideas and steer initiatives related to civic engagement.

Anchoring the coalition is the ethos of bipartisanship and collaboration.

“Going forward, we’re dedicated to improving Indiana civic knowledge, skills and attitudes through the means of education, advocacy and state initiatives,” Dunlap said. “The bar foundation is prepared and supporting this with administrative pieces so we can help to coordinate activities and help coordinate committees.”

Throughout the meeting, Dunlap and his team emphasized the need for the coalition members to support the new middle school civics class. Starting in the spring of 2024, all sixth grade students in Indiana will be required to have a semester of civics education. Teachers will need to have knowledge of the subject matter along with the resources and the tools to instruct students about the functions of government and the role of citizens.

“There’s a lot of work to do in civic education around this new sixth grade class,” Dunlap said. “I think that’s a priority just because of the timing. It’s coming. It will be online January of 2024.”

However, Dunlap noted, the bar foundation wants the coalition to undertake its own initiatives. As the members interact with each other and outside groups, the coalition will be able to organize new committees and set its own agenda. The coalition’s goals and actions will be determined by the members.

The collaboration among members seemed to be starting during the video call with people asking where they could help and offering suggestions about activities the coalition could do. Laura Hammack, superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools and member of the bar foundation board of directors, said she appreciated the spirited energy and flow of ideas.

“I’m just super excited to think about where we’ll be a year from now when we can see that we’ve really moved the dial on some of these indexes for civil health,” Hammack said.

Percolating idea

The bar foundation invited more members, saying Individuals, organizations and companies that have an interest in civics are welcome to join the coalition at no cost. Some nonprofits and businesses are providing financial support to the coalition.

Founding members are CivXNow, a national organization devoted to civics education, the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and the Carmel law firm of Church Church Hittle and Antrim. The Indiana Citizen Education Foundation is a sustaining member. Additional coalition members include Business for America and Community-Engaged Alliance as well as the Indiana State Bar Association and the law firms of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath and Krieg DeVault.

The idea for forming the coalition has been percolating since the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index pushed for the creation of a task force to look for ways to keep civics at the forefront. In 2020, the Civic Education Task Force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, issued a report that included a series of recommendations for improving civic education in schools and expanding knowledge of civics in Hoosiers of all ages.

“Now we’re just trying to keep moving that ball forward,” Tim Kalgreen, director of civic education at the bar foundation, said. He added the focus will be on trying to “really harness this communal property and all of our talents together to keep pushing what is good quality civics.”

To start, the bar foundation is organizing the coalition into three committees with each focusing on one aspect of civic engagement – education, health and advocacy. However, echoing Dunlap, Kalgreen noted the structure is just to get the coalition started. Once the members begin collaborating, they can make changes to the coalition’s organization and go new directions.

“It’s really kind of following what the membership is looking for, what this group of people want to keep pushing civics,” Kalgreen said. “We’ve got a few roadmaps that have already been established. That’s what we’re starting with but we know it’s not the only piece.”

Dunlap sees an opportunity for the coalition to potentially help craft policy.

Included in House Enrolled Act 1384 from 2021, which established the middle school civics course, was also a provision that created the Indiana Civic Education Commission.  The commission is charged with reviewing the most up-to-date information about teaching civics and making recommendations about civics education to legislators and educators.

“Our hope and our plan to integrate … is to have our coalition do a lot of work and bring it to the commission” as policy recommendations for the General Assembly or Indiana Department of Education, Dunlap said. “There will be an avenue to ‘T’ that work into the state’s commission leading up to recommendations and hopefully legislative or other action as necessary.”

Partnering with the business community

Business for America, a national nonpartisan nonprofit focused on engaging the business community to support civics education, is spearheading the Indiana Business Alliance for Civics which is part of the coalition. Nathan Gotsch of Fort Wayne has been tapped to serve as the director for Indiana

At the Civics Summit, Sarah Bonk, founder of Business for America, said the alliance wants to partner with educators and lawmakers, lawyers and other organizations and other civic institutions. She noted BFA is working to promote education and support at a time when civics has become a point of political contention.

“It’s really unfortunate because this is one of the places where we should be able to agree left, right and center that our students need to have an understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Bonk said, adding citizens also have to know how their government works if they want to get the potholes fixed, have better schools and foster a thriving business climate. “It’s all part and parcel of having a well-functioning society and economy.”

During a business panel discussion at the Summit, Salesforce outlined its efforts to get its employees more civically engaged. The company has promoted voter registration, hosted candidate forums and helped employees find out who was on their ballots as well as gave them the day off to vote. Also the company has resources available so employees can learn about the three branches of government and their functions.

Gotsch said BFA is working across Indiana to get the business sector engaged with civics.

“We are looking to help with the education piece not just by connecting businesses with school systems,” Gotsch said, “but also we have found that there are employees at businesses across the state who now are much more interested in learning about civics because they are invested in their communities.”

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