The need for a strong civics education has never been clearer than in the past several years with the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation on the internet, a growing distrust of government and the media and a breakdown of civil discourse on difficult or polarizing issues, say experts.

In a bid to encourage democratic engagement by citizens young and old, Hawaii has joined a growing list of states, including California and Illinois, in establishing initiatives aimed at providing education and resources about basic government processes and ways to influence them.

The Commission to Promote and Advance Civic Education, which was established through the state Supreme Court, has held two virtual meetings since being formed in January. Hawaii’s Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald called it a way to “serve as a catalyst for civic education throughout the state, and increase understanding and respect for the institutions of our democracy” during his Jan. 27 State of the Judiciary address.

Hawaii State Capitol.
The Hawaii PACE Commission consists of representatives from different branches of government and academia. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The 14-member commission is still working on the details of how to implement its goals, which include amplifying existing programs in schools and finding new ways to educate both students and everyday people about how to get involved and influence policies.

House Rep. Amy Perruso, the vice chair, said by way of example that people could learn how to impact the conversation at a neighborhood board meeting or persuade city and county officials to patch a pothole.

“It’s been a larger national conversation,” Perruso said, of the need for greater civic awareness. “Here, we have struggled to get anything passed legislatively, so I’m really grateful for the creation of this commission because it creates space for people to come together.”

“There’s a pretty broad consensus that we are not doing enough in our schools to make sure that students are civically prepared,” she added. “The emphasis is on college and career and not civic life.”

Perruso, a former social studies teacher at Mililani High, highlighted positive initiatives already present in the state such as Project Citizen, a curriculum that dives into the public policymaking process, or Kids Voting Hawaii, which encourages kids to get involved in elections.

The commission’s members were each selected by an “appointing authority” such as the governor, school superintendent, House and Senate leadership, chief judges and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, among others. Members are unpaid and may serve up to three consecutive three-year terms.

“There’s a pretty broad consensus that we are not doing enough in our schools to make sure that students are civically prepared.” — House Rep. Amy Perruso.

The Supreme Court rule establishing the PACE commission was coincidentally adopted a day after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a group of armed insurrectionists energized by the remarks of then-president Donald Trump who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from him.

“No one could have known what was going to happen on Jan 6. It certainly makes everyone who was involved in this (say), we really need to see what we can do,” said commission chairwoman Lisa Ginoza, the chief judge of the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals.

She summed up the commission’s purpose as “simply to raise the bar on civic education in whatever way we can and try and create an entity that will be long-lasting.”

Evidence of the need for more civic engagement abounds in Hawaii, which saw a 54% overall backslide in voter turnout between 1959, when statehood was established, and 2018, though voter turnout in the state reached nearly 70% in the 2020 election thanks to a new vote-by-mail process.

Hawaii isn’t alone as far as grappling with an erosion of civics knowledge and participation: just half of U.S. adults could name the three branches of government, according to a 2020 survey by The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, while a 2018 Brown Center on Education Policy report concluded that civics education was not a core priority in U.S. schools.

“I believe we can say nationally that civics has been put on the back burner in our education system,” said Rosanna Fukuda, educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education and the DOE representative on the new commission.

In Hawaii, high schoolers are required to take a semester-long course, Participation in Democracy. But there is no community service requirement, though students may take a service-oriented elective that emphasizes community-based projects.

In 2015 the Hawaii Board of Education adopted a new social studies framework to strengthen civics education. The idea behind it was to emphasize a more active and critical way of engaging with material rather than rote memorization of dates, places and events in history.

Fukuda said the idea of more robust civics education needs to extend beyond social studies classes.

“All educators send a message to our students about the power of justice and equity,” she said.

Roots Of The Commission

A recognition of the need to better instill in Hawaii residents a basic understanding of the workings of government was first raised 15 years ago during a 2006 speech by then-Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Ronald Moon to the Hawaii chapter of the American Judicature Society, which later formed a committee to increase public understanding of the legal system.

One key recommendation from a subsequent 2008 report by that AJS committee was to establish a Hawaii Institute for Civics Education, helmed by a full-time salaried director. The purpose of the institute would be to improve civics education in Hawaii and expand the public’s knowledge of the judiciary’s role in society.

But the recession delayed the formation of the institute. Ginoza, who was sworn in as chief judge of the appellate court in April 2018, decided to revisit the concept with the support of Recktenwald, after AJS asked one of its committees to revisit the 2008 report.

“We found there were definitely people and entities that were really doing amazing things, but in dispersed ways,” she said, adding the commission’s main role will be to make suggestions and bring together ideas.

“We don’t have any funding or role in telling people what they can and should do,” she said.

Troy Andrade, a PACE commission member and UH Manoa law professor, expressed hope that the group will dive into the unique challenges and issues in the islands, including the role of Native Hawaiians in the community.

“For me, I really see this as not just focusing on civics in the national sense, but really civics in Hawaii,” he said. “It’s important for anyone who lives in Hawaii to understand that to understand civics, you really have to understand Hawaii’s history.”

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