What N.C.’s “REACH” Act Gets Right

The General Assembly has an obligation to encourage civic literacy on UNC campuses.

UNC students aren’t getting a solid foundation in civics. UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, does not require its students to take a course in American government. It does, however, require them to take a three-credit course called Global Understanding and Engagement.

A course in American history or government isn’t even required for majors where knowledge of civics is particularly important. UNC history majors, for instance, aren’t required to take a course in U.S. Government. But they are required to take “at least one History Department course in the area of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern History or in Latin American History.” For the journalism major, an American Government class is one of seven courses students may choose from.

Unfortunately, as noted in our Blueprint for Reform on Civics Education, civic ignorance among college students is a national problem.

According to findings from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, over half of college students do not know the term lengths of members of Congress, and nearly 40 percent do not know which branch of the government has the authority to declare war. 70 percent misidentified Thomas Jefferson as the father of the Constitution. 16 percent thought that Independence Day commemorated the signing of the Constitution (and four percent thought it had to do with the British surrender at Yorktown).

Civic ignorance among college students is a national problem.The North Carolina legislature is contemplating a bill that would push back on this trend.

Filed on February 13, House Bill 96, entitled the “North Carolina Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage” (or the “NC REACH Act” for short), would ensure that the state’s public two- and four-year institutions graduate students with foundational civic knowledge.

If adopted, this act would require “at least three credit hours of instruction in American history or American government in order to graduate from a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with a baccalaureate degree or a community college with an associate degree.”

To meet the course criteria, institutions must require students to read the following historical documents:

  1. The Constitution of the United States of America
  2. The Declaration of Independence
  3. The Emancipation Proclamation
  4. At least five essays from the Federalist Papers, as determined by the instructor
  5. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
  6. The Gettysburg Address
  7. The North Carolina State Constitution

Students must also take a cumulative final exam on the principles contained in those documents. The exam must have a substantial emphasis on the “provisions and principles” of the documents, as well as the authors’ perspectives and the documents’ relevant historical context. The exam must make up at least 20 percent of a student’s course grade. The bill includes exemptions for students who have already fulfilled these requirements by taking an Advanced Placement course and exam, International Baccalaureate courses, or a dual-enrollment course.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Representatives Keith Kidwell, Jon Hardister, and Ray Pickett.

There is often no enforcement mechanism in such laws, which results in litigation.The following are some of the main arguments leveled against the bill while it moved through the North Carolina House of Representatives.

It is too punitive in cases of failed compliance.

If any UNC-System school fails to adhere to the new requirement for more than one academic year, the Board of Governors may remove that institution’s chancellor. This provision received some pushback during the community-college committee meeting. Representative Robinson asked whether this measure was too extreme. “I just feel like that’s over the top because presidents of these institutions … work really hard [for] these institutions,” he said. “Why not have some other measure in place where conversations can take place? I think it’s too much to put in this bill such a threat that if you don’t offer this, you will be fired.”

In response, Hardister stated that he had had a similar initial reaction himself. However, he went on to state, “The problem is, we sometimes create laws that are not adhered to.” He explained that there is often no enforcement mechanism in such laws, which results in litigation. This provision helps avoid that. He also noted that he thought it very unlikely that the college presidents would fail to adhere to the requirement.

It creates barriers for community-college adult learners.

Several representatives expressed concern that a civics requirement would create an additional barrier for adult learners seeking to improve their competitiveness in the job market. Kidwell, however, clarified that the requirement would be for degree-seeking students only. The civics requirement would not apply to those who enroll in non-degree technical training.

It merely repeats high-school civics.

Since students in high school already study most if not all of the documents prescribed in HB 96, some representatives did not see the need to study them again in college. Instead of creating a new college requirement, Representative Lindsey Prather suggested improving the already-existing high-school civics requirement.

Students study several subjects in high school that are also required at the college level.Kidwell responded by pointing out that students study several subjects in high school—such as algebra and biology—that are also required at the college level. The point of studying math again in college isn’t to be redundant but to have a deeper understanding of the content—“a deeper dive,” he said.

Kidwell also pointed out that it doesn’t hurt to re-read these historical documents, especially given their importance in U.S. history.

It is too prescriptive and doesn’t allow students to explore. 

Representative Cunningham objected on the grounds that prescribing a course that students have to pay for is unfair and doesn’t allow them to explore their interests. “I’m wondering if I should be letting other people determine how I spend my money on particular courses. […] I’m not too keen on letting other people determine what classes [I take], especially if I’m paying for them,” she said during the Rules, Calendar, and Operations committee meeting.

Kidwell answered that universities already have a prescribed set of courses—the general education curriculum—and that this course “would just be part of that.”

It is not diverse enough.

Although her objection was not fully formulated, Prather noted that only one of the required authors is a black person and that “none of the documents are written by women.” Representative Zack Hawkins expressed a desire to modify the list of documents so that it told “all of North Carolina and United States history.” Kidwell responded that he was open to meeting to discuss the possibility of other documents but that Hawkins had “failed to show for that meeting.”

The reader should note the foundational importance of the required documents. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence should be closely studied, regardless of what their authors looked like.

The Constitution should be closely studied, regardless of what its authors looked like.There is a lack of precedent for such “micromanaging.” 

Prather argued that legislatively mandating a course on civics was “micromanaging,” as there are currently no other statutory requirements for college graduation. Kidwell responded that the UNC System was created by the General Assembly and that the legislature does “have control over the curriculum to an extent.” “This is just a very small piece; it’s simply three credit hours on historical documents,” he said.

Kidwell recognized that there will no doubt be an implementation cost but stated that UNC receives ample funding from the state to fund this requirement. “In the overall scope of things, we’re not looking at money today,” he said. “Certainly there is a cost in this. But what is the cost if our citizens do not grow up to understand who America is, her greatness, her flaws, and understand our founding documents and our founding principles?” Explaining his support for the bill, Hardister said, “These are really important documents and aspects of United States history. I think if people understand [these documents], whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Independent, we can engage more constructively.”

In response to comments that this bill gives the legislature too much control over the curriculum, the bill’s author, Jameson Broggi, stated that out of a 120-credit-hour degree, three credit hours amounts to “2.5 percent of control” over the curriculum. “UNC was created by the General Assembly. It is certainly appropriate for the General Assembly to have a say in what UNC requires,” he said.

Another possible objection is that such a requirement could risk accreditation problems. North Carolina’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, for example, requires that the faculty have primary responsibility in curricular decisions. But as Broggi noted, the legislative civics requirement consists of only 2.5 percent of the curriculum. Faculty don’t need to have complete curricular authority, just primary authority. And 97.5 percent of curricular control certainly constitutes primary authority.

Fears over accreditation should be further assuaged by looking at other states. South Carolina adopted its own version of this legislation in 2021, without any threat to its institutions’ accreditation. Similarly, the state legislatures in Florida, Georgia, and Texas all have statewide curricular requirements for their public institutions. Contrary to some representatives’ protestations, precedents do exist for state legislatures to prescribe curriculum.

It’s clear that the arguments raised against the NC REACH Act do not hold water. As Kidwell observed, the state’s governing body has a vested interest in producing knowledgeable and civically responsible citizens. A state that ensures that every degree-seeking student is well grounded in the country’s history and principles isn’t “micromanaging,” it’s fulfilling one of its most basic duties.

Shannon Watkins is the research associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.