FLREA was created through the efforts of Florida’s lawyers and judges, and is unique in the landscape of civic learning in Florida. The ultimate goal was to create a nonpartisan, law-focused organization to promote the advancement of quality K-12 civic education programs. FLREA was incorporated in 1984 and began with a whirlwind of enthusiasm and interest. Programs impacting juvenile delinquency prevention as well as constitutional education and court education initiatives took first priority. Efforts to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution evolved into elementary, middle, and high school constitutional education programs that remain active three decades later. The U.S. Department of Education provided funding in the organization’s inaugural year to survey school districts and create a network of law-related education programs statewide. As the years passed, new initiatives evolved with the Florida High School Mock Trial Competition, the Florida Supreme Court Justice Teaching Institute, and a host of other law-related and civic education initiatives.
FLREA received federal funds in the 1990s to establish a network of law magnet and law academies at the high school level as well as a wide range of substantive law electives for the Florida Department of Education Course Code Directory. Today, Florida offers more law-related courses than any state in the country. Courses include law studies, comprehensive law studies, court procedures, court procedures internship, legal systems and concepts, constitutional law, international law, and more. Middle schools also began offering law-related electives as well, and, today, we are fortunate to have middle school law academies in multiple districts. Many schools have built courtrooms on their campuses and forensic labs, among other additions.
Moving into the 2000’s
Soon, a movement was underway in Florida to strengthen civic education state standards. Between 2003 and 2004, FLREA surveyed school districts in Florida and found that less than 10 percent of school districts reported offering a separate standalone civics course in middle school. Miami-Dade County reported the longest standing mandatory year-long civics course in seventh grade.
There was also a statewide high school graduation requirement in Florida during this time for a one-half credit semester course in American government, which continues today.
In 2005, surveys were conducted by the ABA and The Florida Bar to ascertain the status of civic knowledge among adults. Based on these survey results, state teams were invited to participate in congressional conferences on civic education held in Washington, D.C. FLREA served as the state team leader in these conferences, which included state legislators, staff from the Department of Education (DOE), leaders from the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, as well as bar leaders and other representatives. Florida Bar President Alan Bookman visited media outlets to raise awareness of the lack of civic knowledge and a statewide campaign began to advance civic education in Florida. Bookman’s impact on the civic landscape of Florida has been significant, leading to increased interest among policymakers to explore the civic learning deficit.
Florida House member Curtis Richardson spearheaded the inaugural civic legislation in Florida as part of the 2006 Middle School Reform Act. One simple line in a massive 160-page education bill created the first required instruction for middle school civics in Florida. Senator Ron Klein led the charge in the Florida Senate and the proposal became law in 2006. The original requirement provided one semester of civics and government in middle school. This language was later changed to at least one semester.
Soon after, DOE began development of new state standards in social studies. FLREA served on a statewide committee as a framer and a writer for the civics and government standards and benchmarks. The Next Generation Sunshine State Standards were ultimately approved in 2008 for grades K-12 in Florida. Civics and government benchmarks were developed for all grades with specific emphasis on grades five, seven, and high school.
A new middle school progression plan was recommended to include world history, civics, and American history. Forty benchmarks were developed for the seventh grade civics course, including applied civics components with simulations and problem solving models integrating varying degrees of cognitive complexity.
These content-focused benchmarks also incorporate application and experiential components that are less easy to test but provide a more hands-on approach to civic learning.
In 2009, FLREA hosted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as she visited Florida to highlight iCivics, her game-based civic learning initiative. Justice O’Connor visited with students at Deerlake Middle School in Tallahassee to see their work with iCivics. She also met with local civics teachers and members of the bench and the Bar. She spoke to both chambers of the Florida Legislature as well as the governor and cabinet on the civic knowledge deficit in this country and brought statewide attention to the importance of civic education.
The following year, the Florida Legislature proposed and unanimously passed enhanced civics legislation titled the Sandra Day O’Connor Act. The legislation accomplished three major priorities for civics in Florida. First, the law required the reading portion of language arts to include civic education content. Second, the legislation clarified the original 2006 legislation to designate at least one semester of civics in the middle grades. This allowed for a year-long civics class as opposed to one single semester. Finally, the legislation required the inclusion of a middle school civics end-of-course assessment.
Today, Florida serves as a model for civic learning. In addition to its nonpartisan, law-focused, civic education models, FLREA has also developed adult education programs and partnerships. Many challenges still exist as we prepare for the future; but FLREA remains committed to advancing law-focused civic learning.