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Controversial participant prompts doubts about civics study panel

A committee of state lawmakers created to study civics education in Georgia’s public schools is being viewed with skepticism by some before it starts its work, thanks to the recent selection of a committee member who’s made controversial statements on slavery and the Civil War.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, named Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, on Friday as one of three House Republicans to serve on the committee. Benton has said the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up,” and he tried to get the state to formally recognize Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as official holidays, in response to efforts to remove or minimize public displays of Confederate flags or symbols.

“The Ku Klux Klan did not make a lot of people straighten up,” said Atlanta NAACP president Richard Rose. “It was a group that strung people up.”

Rose predicted some teachers will avoid teaching students what may come from the committee.

The committee was proposed by a group of House Republicans led by Chris Coomer of Cartersville. A resolution to create the committee was adopted on the last day of this year’s legislative session, with just one vote against it. The group is charged by December with making recommendations to state leaders and the education department to improve civic literacy in schools.

Read AJC reporter Chris Joyner’s post about what Benton’s appointment says about the Georgia House.

In response to interview requests with Benton, House Communications Director Kaleb McMichen cited Benton’s education experience.

“Chairman Benton is a retired teacher who holds degrees in history and middle school education,” McMichen said a statement. “He spent 30 years in the classroom teaching subjects including Georgia history and American history.”

Coomer declined comment on Benton’s involvement on the committee, saying he was unaware of the criticism. Coomer, who’s also on the committee, said some residents in his area raised concerns that civics education was lacking. Some conservatives have complained to state lawmakers and school boards in recent years about how American history is taught in Georgia’s schools.

Coomer, the House’s majority whip, said he decided to have the committee do homework on civics education.

“The committee will look at, does the state of Georgia have sufficient curriculum for students to get a basic education in civics?” he said. “I’m open to finding answers.”

Coomer said the committee may decide no changes are necessary.

“It may be we’re doing enough,” he said.

Georgia YMCA executive director Randell Trammell said civics education is overlooked, citing polls that found just one-third of Americans know the three branches of the federal government, but two-thirds know the names of the Three Stooges. More, he quipped, likely know the names of the reality-show Kardashian family.

“It’s a serious issue,” Trammell, founder of the Georgia Center for Civil Engagement, quickly added.

Trammell suggested in an interview that schools conduct a citizenship test for students to increase their knowledge.

For some, though, the selection of committee members has raised questions about why it was created and criticism about its goals.

Bob Holmes, a former Democratic state lawmaker and Clark Atlanta University political science professor, said language in the resolution about exploring efforts by other states to improve civics education makes him think the committee’s goal is to find and promote nationwide efforts he says have eroded voting rights.

“That’s not my focus,” Coomer replied.

Eddie Bennett, executive director of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies, hopes the committee will come up with ideas that will mesh with revised social studies standards set to be implemented in Georgia’s public schools this fall.

“These are good standards,” he said. “We just need resources to do it well.”

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