The Bulletin Board

Bill to require civics test to graduate from public colleges heads to Sununu’s desk

By: - February 4, 2022 2:07 pm
State House dome

Not all Republican lawmakers have supported the bill. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill requiring students at public colleges and universities to pass a civics test in order to graduate, sending the measure to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. 

But the vote came over the objections of Democrats, who said the test would be too onerous on students and universities to carry out.

House Bill 319 would require students attending New Hampshire-run colleges and universities to take the 128-question civics test necessary for non-U.S. citizens to become naturalized. The bill necessitates that students receive a 70 or higher on the test in order to graduate. Exchange students and foreign nationals would be exempt, the bill states.

Supporters say the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Moffett, a Loudon Republican, would help close existing knowledge gaps around how the U.S. government works. 

“We have a very serious, potentially lethal lack of knowledge on our system of government,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “If we want to be good citizens and define that as paying our taxes, not getting speeding tickets, raising a family, doing a job, you can move to red China and do that, my friends. This nation depends on the active knowledgeable participation of its citizens to perpetuate the freedoms with which we have been blessed.”

But Sen David Watters, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, argued that requiring the test was a reductive approach to teaching about civics. 

“Isn’t that part of the issue about democracy right now?” Watters, a Dover Democrat, said. “It isn’t just some facts that can be checked off at 80 percent on a test or some documents that can be read and then forgotten.”

The test – the 2020 version of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test – is an open-answer exam that includes quantitative questions concerning the number of amendments in the Constitution (27), the length of a term for a U.S. senator (six years), and the number of U.S. House representatives (435). 

It contains numerous questions on process, such as questions concerning which branch of government writes laws and declares war, and what happens if the president can no longer serve. 

And it includes some more interpretative questions, such as: “Why do U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. senators?” (to more closely follow public opinion); “What is the rule of law?”; and “There are three branches of government. Why?”

Not all Republican lawmakers have supported the bill. It passed the House by one vote in April – 188-187 – and received a unanimous recommendation that it be killed by members of the Senate Education Committee in January. But on Thursday, the bill moved forward, 14-10, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

Sen. Ruth Ward, a Stoddard Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, was one of those who recommended killing the bill in January. On Thursday, Ward argued in favor of the bill. 

“I’m sad, in a way, that we even have to discuss this,” Ward said on the floor. She was unavailable to comment Thursday. 

The bill will move to the governor’s desk in the coming weeks. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.