If there is one thing that defined Laura Wooten, it was her unwavering dedication to the election process in her community and in the United States.
For 79 years, until her death in March 2019, Wooten sat behind the voter check-in table as a poll worker – first at the polling places in Princeton where she grew up, and then for 30 years at the polling places in Lawrence after she moved to the township.
Wooten had the distinction of being the longest-serving poll worker in the United States. She never missed an election – for the school board, the political party primaries or the general election – beginning in 1939, when she was recruited by her uncle to serve as a poll worker in Princeton.
So it should come as no surprise that legislation requiring civics instruction to be taught in middle school has been named “Laura Wooten’s Law.” The legislation, which was passed by the state Senate and the state Assembly on May 20, is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature.
The state Senate bill was co-sponsored by state Senators Shirley Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon), who lives in Lawrence Township, and Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer/Middlesex).
The state Assembly companion bill was co-sponsored by Assemblywomen Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer/Hunterdon), who lives in Trenton, and Mila Jasey (D-Essex/Morris) and Linda Carter (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union).
The legislation was introduced in the state Senate in January 2020 and in the state Assembly in February 2020.
The bill directs the New Jersey Department of Education to require at least one course in civics or United States government as a requirement for middle school graduation, beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
The legislation also requires the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers, the State University, to prepare curriculum guidelines and provide professional development for high school teachers. It would integrate civics, economics and the history of New Jersey into United States history courses.
“Government leaders have been sounding the alarm about the civics crisis for years. Safeguarding democracy is more urgent than ever,” Turner said.
One of the best ways to do that is by teaching students about the importance of civic skills, engagement and participation and the value of the democratic process, Turner said.
The Lawrence Township chapter of the League of Women Voters agrees that there is “an acute need” for a middle school course devoted to civics, said Nicole Plett and Marcia Steinberg, who serve on the Lawrence chapter’s Civics Education Committee.
Since its founding in 1920, the League of Women Voters has spent more than 100 years empowering voters and defending democracy, Plett and Steinberg said. They cited a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that said more than half of American adults cannot name the three branches of federal government.
Only 39% of New Jersey school districts require students to take a civics course in any grade, and that’s why it is vital for such a course to become mandatory, Plett and Steinberg said.
“Ignorance can so readily provide a breeding ground for rumor, false information and fear. We turn to our public schools to reduce ignorance so that our citizens can engage in responsible and productive civic activity,” they said.
A well-designed civics course teaches facts, and research shows that students who take a civics course are more likely to engage in community-building activities, Plett and Steinberg said.
The civics course would teach students about the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, as well as the function and limitations of government, Plett and Steinberg said. Students will learn about the role of a citizen in a democratic society.