How Justice O’Connor Brought Civics to Chicago

On December 1, we learned of the heartbreaking news of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s passing. The news broke just as the National Council for the Social Studies opened its conference in Nashville, the largest annual gathering of civics educators. The convening permitted collective grieving for and remembrance of a history-making woman who built a national movement for innovative civic learning as her legacy project.

Justice O’Connor contended that civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions are not passed through the national gene pool, but must instead be cultivated with each successive generation. As iCivics’ CEO Louise Dubé detailed in her moving tribute, Justice O’Connor built iCivics into the leading civic education provider in the U.S., reaching half of middle and high school students and nearly 150,000 teachers each year. Yet in her final letter to the American people dated October 23, 2018, she set the bar far higher.

Justice O’Connor wrote:

“It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation. To achieve this, I hope that private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government will work together to create and fund a nationwide civics education initiative. Many wonderful people already are working towards this goal, but they need real help and public commitment.”

CivXNow was thus born in 2018 with 47 charter members committed to strengthening local, state, and federal civic education policies including funding. As 2023 concludes, we boast 320 organizational members, plus a presence in 41 states and counting. We secured increased federal funding for K–12 civics from $3.5M in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 to $23M in FY 2023. And we supported state partners and policymakers in passing and adopting 29 laws with bipartisan support since 2021 that align with the CivXNow State Policy Menu.

Like Louise, I have a personal story of Justice O’Connor’s role in propelling this remarkable progress. She visited Chicago a decade ago in an effort to boost the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition’s statewide efforts, but also to support a robust new strategy in the state’s largest district, Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Justice O’Connor visited a high school civics class at Alcott College Prep on the city’s North Side and engaged students in a stimulating conversation about her historic service as the nation’s first female Justice, and on the importance of their civic development as a condition of sustaining a self-governing nation.

From there, Justice O’Connor dined with members of the CPS Board of Education, endorsing a district-wide civic education strategy that included a full-year high school civics course, project-based service learning, and student voice committees in middle and high schools. She keynoted a breakfast the following morning before a packed Union League Club audience composed of students, teachers, and school leaders, and held court on civic learning at the Chicago Tribune editorial board that afternoon before departing.

The impact of Justice O’Connor’s visit continues to bear fruit a decade later. The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition successfully advocated for a state civic education task force that spring, and it produced policy recommendations to the General Assembly the following year. The recommendations were implemented in quick succession, including passage of a high school civics course in 2015, its middle school counterpart in 2019, new state social studies standards centering civics in 2016, and a statewide system of teacher professional development that has served 25,000-plus teacher participants since the fall of 2015.

CPS is an important part of this story, too, scaling the initiative launched the school year of Justice O’Connor’s visit into the model civic education strategy for a large urban district with dedicated staffing and funding. Oh, and the Tribune provided front-page coverage of the task force and the editorial board endorsed the push for a required civics course.

Her legacy endures, as each meeting with policymakers and their staff begins with our origin story starring Justice O’Connor. She continues to command universal respect across the political spectrum, and we carry her commitment to civic learning close to our hearts. We honor Justice O’Connor’s memory each day in this collective impact effort called the CivXNow Coalition. It is a great privilege to work for the organization she founded, and to pursue (and one day achieve) her lofty vision with eternal vigilance in partnership with each of you.

Yours in civics,

Shawn Healy

Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, iCivics

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