Arizona high school students face the nation's first requirement to pass the U.S. citizenship test on civics before they can graduate after the legislation sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Lawmakers approved the bill amid a growing nationwide effort to boost civics education, and newly elected Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed it into law Thursday evening.
The swift action comes as states around the country take up similar measures, driven primarily by a conservative institute whose motto is "Patriotism Matters." The leader of the organization is former California U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who came in last in Arizona's Republican primary for governor after running a hard-right campaign focused on immigration and rhetoric against President Barack Obama.
The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt the requirement by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year. The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the same measure Thursday, but Arizona's proposal was the first to pass a full Legislature.
The Foss Institute promotes the test to state legislatures as a way to increase knowledge of basic government by students.
The proposal requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test new citizens must pass. The test includes questions about the Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights and U.S. presidents. Passing it would be required to earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-17 school year.
The bill garnered support from all 53 Republicans in the House and Senate, plus 10 of 27 Democrats.
But opponents questioned whether the test, which relies on memorization, is the best way to engage students in civics education. And they also wonder what message it sends when the bill was the first order of business at a time when Arizona is facing a large deficit and a court order to repay schools for funding that lawmakers cut during the recession, which approaches $3 billion.
"In the midst of a budget crisis, after we purposely underfunded our public schools, we rush this piece of legislation through in the first week even before we've addressed the investment the courts have ordered us to (pay) to our public schools," Rep. Juan Mendez said, explaining his opposition.
Republican House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro cited a federal study that said two-thirds of students measured below proficiency in civics.
"So this is alarming, because ... if our students don't understand that we have fundamental rights given to us, afforded to us by our Constitution, things like freedom of the press, like conversation, like assembly, like religion, like speech, can that be good?" he said.
Ducey called on the Legislature to make the civics test the first bill to hit his desk as governor. He said studies show that students don't know enough about basic government to grow into effective citizens.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an Arizona native, has supported the initiative. She's made civics education a prime focus in recent years.
A high school government teacher, Joe Thomas of Mesa, said he was concerned that the 100-question test would take up an entire class period and requires rote memorization rather than critical thinking.
"The interest is promoting civics, and we want to see students engaged," Thomas said. "I don't know if a test engages students."