Breakthrough On End-Of-Sessions Civics Bill May Be Near

A civics education bill that's been in limbo since Gov. Charlie Baker returned it to lawmakers in August with an amendment resurfaced on the Senate floor Thursday, and further action is expected on it next week.

The bill (S 2631), a piece of compromise legislation that passed the House and Senate unanimously on July 25, establishes a high school voter registration challenge, strengthens requirements around civics education in public schools and calls on each public school serving students in the eighth grade and each public high school to provide at least one student-led civics project for each student.

Baker sent the bill back with an amendment on Aug. 3, after the Democrat-controlled Legislature had ended its formal business for the year. The Republican governor's amendment specifies that the voter registration challenge be non-partisan, and makes changes to the project section.

The governor wants students to be able to opt out of projects "in the public sphere that advance positions contrary to their personal convictions." His amendment calls for those students to be offered "alternative opportunities" to develop civic skills.

The Senate Committee on Bills on Third Reading, chaired by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, has had custody of the bill and Baker's amendment for the past 80 days. On Thursday, the committee recommended an amendment to Baker's proposal offered by Sen. Harriette Chandler.

Chandler's amendment aims to incorporate Baker's changes and maintain the intent of the original bill, according to her office. It would add the word "non-partisan" to the voter registration challenge section and an alternative opportunities provision to the project section, newly requiring a principal to approve if a student opts out of a group or classwide project to pursue an alternative project.

Chandler and Baker's amendments also differ in how they speak about schools offering civics projects. Baker's proposal says each public high school and public school serving eighth graders "shall provide all students with the opportunity to participate" in such a project; Chandler's proposal and the original bill both say the schools "shall provide not less than 1 student-led, non-partisan civics project for each student."

The Senate did not vote Thursday on the amendments, as the House also kept its session open for a time in anticipation of action on the bill. Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said on the floor that the "much-debated and long-awaited bill" needed "a bit more work." He moved that the matter be postponed until the Senate's next session, which is scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m.

"We are still working collaboratively to make sure we get the right changes back to the governor's desk," Tarr told the News Service. "This has been a collaborative effort all the way, and continuing that collaboration requires just a little bit more time."

Tarr said that did "not necessarily" mean additional amendments would be offered.

"I think there are a lot of options on the table, but the most important thing is they reflect a consensus, and being able to solidify that consensus is going to take us just a little bit longer," he said. "But I think it's imperative we pass this bill in this legislative session. It's traveled a very long way, it deserves to make it over the goal line and I think that's within reach."


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