Can America Pay Its Way to Civic Learning?

The Civics Secures Democracy Act (CSDA), a bill that was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate last month under the auspices of bipartisanship, represents a federal legislative push to expand and upgrade K-12 civic and history education through a sum of $6 billion in competitive grants over a six-year period. The proposed federal funding bonanza includes:

  • $585 million per year for state education agencies to “support civics and history education programs, especially with a lens to closing civics achievement gaps”;
  • $200 million per year for nonprofit organizations that will bid to “develop and provide access to evidence-based civics and history curricula and programs”;
  • $150 million per year for universities and colleges to “support civics and history educator preparation and ongoing development”;
  • $50 million per year for researchers who compete for research grants that “assess and evaluate civics and history education programs and identify best instructional practices”; and
  • $15 million per year for a new Prince Hall Civics Fellowship program to “diversify the civics and history education workforce by recognizing outstanding educators from underrepresented communities and providing a supplemental stipend in exchange for a five year teaching commitment.”

The budget would draw from COVID relief funds. In addition to enhanced federal funding, the CSDA also contains substantive provisions for federalizing civic education, including the incorporation of further legislative vehicles like the USA Civics Act to update existing civics grant programs and more public financing of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and the James Madison Fellowship Program.

The bill, which failed to advance in the Senate last year, is predicated on two assumptions. First, unifying civic education with the visible hand of the national government is necessary for improving students’ knowledge acquisition of civics, history, and social studies. Second, the effort will signal an ideological middle ground in which young Americans can be inspired to participate in our democratic process on the one hand, and to appreciate our founding principles and the U.S. Constitution on the other. Both premises are faulty.

State mandates do not translate into better results

The CSDA was couched in a broader context of systemic declines in K-12 history and civic proficiency, a national crisis deduced solely from a 2018 policy report issued by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive advocacy group dedicated to racial justice and equity, environmental justice, and redistributive economics. The CAP report, entitled “The State of Civics Education,” draws from national polls on civic literacy and voter participation and argues that “[c]ivic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low.” To solve the deficiencies in both knowledge and participation, CAP recommends mandating K-12 civics exams as graduation requirements, popularizing service learning, and empowering nonprofits and charter schools to design action-oriented civics programming.

[Related: “The Pipeline of Indoctrination”]

There are many issues with the CAP report on civics—to use its policy recommendations as the basis for the CSDA is simply intellectual laziness. To start, its data selection process is biased. Instead of showing that the 17 states where a civics exam is required for high school graduation outperform the rest in Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics classes, the report’s statistical findings are incongruent with its prescriptions for a standardized, top-down effort to institute civic education.

For example, according to the report, students in Vermont and New Jersey, two states that do not require a civics course or offer a state curriculum in civics, have significantly higher mean scores on the U.S. government AP exams, 3.41 and 3.09 respectively, than their counterparts in Washington D.C. (2.33). In D.C., a one-year civics class is mandated, a full state curriculum is provided, and community service is part of civic learning.

Having failed to correlate state mandates with knowledge acquisition, CAP then offers empirical observations on rates of voter participation and volunteerism among young people aged 16 to 24. Here again, the findings are uneven and insufficient to support its conclusions. Youngsters in Nevada, for instance, where a year-long U.S. government course is mandated with a full state curriculum and extra credit for community service, have a mediocre voter participation rate of 35.9% and an even more unimpressive volunteerism rate of 20.5%. This directly negates the report’s assertion that “[s]tates with the highest rates of youth civic engagement tend to prioritize civics courses and AP U.S. government in their curricula.”

Federal investment is not the cure for underperformance

At any rate, the prognosis of knowledge deficiency in civics, history, and American government could only justify a national push on one condition: top-down investment leads to better performances. Controversies surrounding the efficacy of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, promoted over a decade ago at the federal level to promote common standards for mathematics and English language arts, provide strong evidence against a big-government approach to civic learning.

Common Core standards have been heavily criticized by analysts and scholars from different political and ideological persuasions. A 2012 analysis by the Brookings Institution finds that the Common Core fails to account for academic learning gaps among different regions and school districts. The Heritage Foundation argues that national standards and assessments perpetuate the political and bureaucratic monopoly of the public education system.

The National Association of Scholars notes that “[b]etween 2011 and 2019, the scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (the ‘nation’s report card’) for fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders have declined across two thirds of the states that adopted Common Core.”

States that have repealed the standards, on the contrary, have not all experienced a decline in measurable academic performance. In Arizona, after the state abandoned Common Core in 2015, reading scores for fourth-graders slightly improved in the next four years. New Jersey continues to be one of the leading states in math and reading, despite doing away with Common Core in 2017.

[Related: “The Tip of the Racist Spear”]

A 2021 quantitative study observes about 83,000 students in states that adopted Common Core  and concludes that the initiative “had a small positive effect on math scores and no detectable effect on reading scores.” In addition, the model finds that Common Core had “no detectable initial effect on economically disadvantaged students.” In the meantime, the taxpayer cost of implementing Common Core is estimated to be a staggering $16 billion, while the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 invested $4.35 billion of federal funding in Race to the Top grants awarded to states that adopted the initiative.

Without resounding success from similar initiatives, the CSDA’s proposal of national incentives for civics will become another money-grabbing scheme that lines the pockets of special interest groups, D.C. nonprofits, and other industry insiders.

The ideological overlay of a woke education establishment looms large

The allure of bipartisanship quickly evaporates when one delves deeper into the intricate network of support behind the CSDA. The CivXNow Coalition, the main organizational proponent of the CSDA, is platformed by iCivics, America’s largest advocacy group for civics education. CivXNow supports action-based learning for civics and an equitable approach “centering the authentic expertise and leadership of students; people living in poverty; Black and Brown people; people from rural backgrounds and urban backgrounds, and everywhere in between.” To accomplish equity, CivXNow supports using “the Critical Consciousness scale.”

The CiviXNow Coalition is joined by 220 partner groups, the vast majority of which are leftist and center-left organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Bar Association, Generation Citizen, and Teaching Tolerance. iCivics is funded by the Gates Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hewlett Foundation, and Apple inc., among others.

The CSDA has also been endorsed by most groups in the CiviXNow Coalition. The coalition’s leftward bias means that the bill’s future implementation would at best pay lip service to conservative demands for content and rigor, while giving preferential consideration to the woke establishment’s ideological demands for turning civics learning into an activist training ground.

Not only is the weak correlation between state action and student outcomes a sign of the CSDA’s flimsy factual base, but it is also problematic to join public engagement with civic learning. Action civics, also known as “New Civics,” “Civic Engagement,” and “Project-Based Civics,” is an alternative civics pedagogy that fosters government and civics education through direct political action (i.e., free labor for progressive activism).

Action civics encompasses service-based learning in activities including community service, lobbying, and voter education campaigns. While its broad appeal is “learning by doing,” this new concept has been widely criticized by policy observers and education policy experts for its overemphasis on partnership over citizenship and its bias toward progressive political activism. Critics argue that “the nationwide movement to replace ‘content-based’ civic education with ‘action civics’… would rob our already civically illiterate students of class time needed for study.”

Many observers have voiced concerns about the CSDA’s fundemantal ties to woke ideology, including Stanley Kurtz, Newt Gingrich, Mike Pompeo, and Ron DeSantis. The Civics Alliance, an effort convened by the National Association of Scholars to gather education reformers, policymakers, and concerned citizens, has led an initiative to oppose the CSDA. Other groups including 1776 Action and the John Locke Foundation are also opposing the bill for similar reasons.

More will need to be done to educate the public on the potential harms of federalizing civics with an ideologically unbalanced coalition operating under the false appearance of bipartisanship.


Image: Karolina Grabowska, Public Domain

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

One thought on “Can America Pay Its Way to Civic Learning?”

  1. The problem is that you can’t teach what you don’t know, and both ISI & ACTA have consistently shown how little college grads know.

    Our new Juneteenth holiday serves as an example — slavery was still legal in several states including Delaware. And yes, Delaware was a slave state….

    Black lives may matter, but so does knowing who Hugo Black was….

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