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 of America.
For 79 years until her death in 2019, Wooten sat behind the voter check-in table as a poll worker – first at polling places in Princeton where she grew up, and then for 30 years at polling places in Lawrence Township after she moved there.
That is why it is no surprise that legislation requiring civics instruction to be taught in middle school has been named “Laura Wooten’s Law” in honor of the longest-serving poll worker in American history. The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy on July 23.
Wooten 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.
Anderson Mitnaul, Wooten’s uncle, was running for the office of justice of the peace when he asked her to help at the polls.
The new law 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 law also requires the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University to prepare curriculum guidelines and to provide professional development for high school social studies teachers. It would integrate civics, economics and the history of New Jersey into United States history courses.
An understanding of civics “strengthens our democracy by ensuring an understanding of the role everyone plays in the future of their community, our state and our nation,” Murphy was quoted as saying in a press release.
“Government leaders have been sounding the alarm about the civics crisis for years and I am grateful we are finally taking action,” said state Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer and Hunterdon).
Turner was a co-sponsor of the bill and is a Lawrence Township resident.
Safeguarding democracy is more urgent than ever and one of the best ways to do that is by teaching students about the importance of civic skills, engagement, participation and the value of the democratic process, said Turner.
Every student in public school will have the opportunity to learn about how government functions, the rights of citizens and the values the United States was built on, state Senate Republican leader Tom Kean said in a press release.
The Lawrence Township chapter of the League of Women Voters agrees 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.
Plett and Steinberg cited a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center which reported that more than half of American adults cannot name the three branches of the federal government – the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Plett and Steinberg said only 39% of New Jersey school districts require students to take a civics course in any grade and that is why it is vital for such a course to be mandatory.
“Ignorance can so readily provide a breeding ground for rumor, false information and fear. We turn to our public schools to reduce ignorance so our citizens can engage in responsible and productive activity,” they said.
A well-designed civics course teaches facts, and research has shown that students who take a civics course are more likely to engage in community-building activities, Plett and Steinberg said.