FRANKLIN, Tenn. - Iain Macpherson cares deeply about teaching civics, explaining to his fifth-graders how government works, what the Bill of Rights protects and what it means to be an American citizen.
To make the lessons real, the 61-year-old Scottish immigrant arranged for a federal judge to perform his own citizenship ceremony at his school, Freedom Intermediate in Franklin.
"I wanted them to know what the experience is like," Macpherson said.
Macpherson and other social studies teachers say they have to shoehorn civics lessons into their regular classes because Tennessee and most other states don't require civics to be taught separately.
Since the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002, schools have focused on reading and math, and that has squeezed out other subjects like arts, music and civics, educators say. So lawmakers in Tennessee and other states have proposed bills this year to save civics.
A bill from state Sen. Rosalind Kurita would require the Tennessee Department of Education to create a separate civics course in at least one grade between fifth and eighth grade.
"We have responsibilities to our community and to other people to be good citizens," said Kurita, D-Clarksville. "And I think that civic classes are a way to teach how comprehensive this responsibility really is."
Kurita says teaching students about voting and citizenship rights is just as important as math and English. Ted McConnell, director of the Campaign to Promote Civic Education, an initiative of the Center for Civic Education, agrees.
"Study after study shows that when our youth are exposed to effective civic education courses, they're not only more likely to vote, but they're more likely to get involved in their communities and work toward solutions to societal problems," he said.
Attention to civics in the classroom had been declining over the past 20 years, McConnell said, but the "decline was dramatically accelerated after the implementation of No Child Left Behind."
He cited a study done last year by the Washington-based Center for Education Policy that showed 71 percent of school districts surveyed said they have had to reduce instructional time in at least one other subject to make room for increased attention to math and reading because of NCLB.
"We find that the first target of those cuts is usually social studies, which often includes civic learning," McConnell said.
The Center for Civic Education said several other state legislatures are considering civics bills: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution earlier this month to encourage the creation of a council that would make recommendations on improving civics education.
The Tennessee bill stalled in committee last week so a study commission could make suggestions, but Kurita remains optimistic about its chances.
"To inform students about government, how the legal community and how society works, is critical to education," said state Sen. Jamie Woodson, a Knoxville Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee. "It's as important as math and science."
Les Winningham, chairman of the House Education Committee that is scheduled to hear the companion bill, said he also supports the idea of a separate class for civics. "It's such an essential part of our way of government," said Winningham, D-Huntsville.
McConnell said civics classes should be offered as early as possible. He said some states don't teach civics until a student's senior year, "which is too late."
"It's best to get this information to the students sooner where they're more likely to be engaged than their senior year," he said.
Bruce Opie, legislative director for the Tennessee Department of Education, said Kurita's legislation is being given serious consideration.
"There's a lot of room for improvement on teaching civics," said Opie, who once taught social studies. "If it's the will of the Legislature to require a stand alone course, obviously we'll abide by that."