Sunday, July 31, 2016

Schools Should Teach Local Government


As July comes to a close, about a month remains in the vacations of schoolchildren across our area. It's been a great summer with lots of beach weather. Let's hope our young people are enjoying it.

When they come back to school in September, they will be faced with the burden of being pupils in our modern world. There is a lot to learn, and things change faster than ever before. It's tough for our school systems to keep up with the latest in education, and hard for students to absorb the ever-increasing amount of knowledge available for their consumption.

But I believe there is one major area where our educational system tends to fail its students regularly. I believe our schools are lacking when it comes to teaching kids about something that affects them nearly every day. 

I'm talking about local government and how it works.
We regularly include our federal governmental structure in our lessons for young people. They learn about the presidency, about Congress, about how a bill becomes law. They are taught that House seats are elected every two years, and Senate terms are six-year stints. They are taught how our government was formed, how it has changed, and what role the various parts of it play.

But with relatively few exceptions, local government is virtually ignored. There may be many reasons why, but none seem to carry much validity. And a strong argument can be made that our local governments are paying a heavy price today for generations of neglect in this area.

When I first started in school, it was referred to as "civics." You learned about government in general, but it was always the "upper levels" as opposed to local government. After all, there is just one federal government. It was easy for textbooks to outline that confounding entity for all school districts, no matter where they may be located.

But local governments are different animals. Even in our small area, they are all unique in some ways. We have city councils, RTMs, Open Town Meetings, and even a town council a short distance up the highway in Franklin. They are all governed by different rules and work in different ways. Each town has various committees that perform basic functions, and depend on volunteer efforts to operate.

Yet there are few classes that teach local government. Sure, there might be certain assemblies and events that pay homage to the local organizations and expose kids to a small part of it. But in most cases, there is no requirement that demands kids learn about the very entity that primarily makes their education possible.

Many people think that's OK. After all, won't most kids move away after they graduate from high school? They go to college, they get jobs in other states or towns - why should they learn the system of government in a community they are most likely leaving?

The answer is - because it's important. Because it helps them understand the value of their community and the importance of both being informed and involved. Because if our schools don't teach them - who will?

Frankly, parents are not a reliable source for this type of education. Most of them didn't get it taught to them when they were younger. And the turnout at our local elections and town meetings clearly shows their interest is often limited at best. They struggle to explain what they themselves don't understand.

Make local government part of the curriculum. Make students take a test on it at some point in high school. Involve your town officials, bring them into the schools. If your school does some of this now - expand it. It is important.

These future taxpayers need to understand how they are represented locally. When they grow up and own a home, they need to know how their local planners play a role in their future. If we don't make it important to them now, it won't be later.

When your school budget is in trouble, or your police and fire departments need your support, voters and citizens need to be familiar with the system that can solve the problems. Town Government 101 should be a required course for all local school systems.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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