DeVos, invest in the future of our democracy by focusing on civics

DeVos, invest in the future of our democracy by focusing on civics
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In an era of unprecedented political polarization, one of the only issues that has brought together both parties is the need for a robust revival of civics education. Democrats and Republican elected officials, academics, journalists, educators and students alike have publicly expressed the need for a return to the historical purpose of our public schools: cultivating and educating an engaged citizenry capable of shepherding our democracy forward.

The tenor of the 2016 election, and the civic upheavals that have presented themselves in the months since, illustrate the need for a population capable of engaging in deliberative discourse, interpreting the news and understanding how government works.


With the first year of implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2017, a bipartisan opportunity arose to heed to these cries for civics education.


We did not meet the challenge.

While new programs were created, they were not funded at their full potential. If we are serious about educating young people to become civically informed and engaged, our country’s dollars must follow our words. 

The opportunity for the federal government to prioritize civics exists. In a departure from the previous No Child Left Behind Act, which largely ignored the subject, ESSA supports civics education in three unique ways. Firstly, the American History and Civic Academies program supports teachers directly through professional development institutes focused on the subjects.

Second, the American History and Civics-National Activities Grant program encourages much needed innovation in civic learning by awarding funding to programs that promote innovative instruction, learning strategies and professional development in U.S. history, civics and government.

Finally, the Student Success and Academic Enrichment Grants allow local school districts to apply for funding from the state for the purpose of a well rounded education, which explicitly includes civics.

Full appropriation at the authorized amount for these ESSA programs would have equalled over $1.6 billion. In 2017, these ESSA programs have been appropriated at a combined $10 million, or less than 1 percent of the authorized amount.

Taking the SSAE grants out of the equation (as they can also be used for courses and programming in other school subjects, like arts, writing and foreign language instruction), the two dedicated civics programs are currently appropriated at a combined $3.5 million, instead of the authorized amount of $8.23 million — a significantly better, but still a paltry 43 percent of the maximum total amount.

The first award of the promising American History and Civics — National Activities grant was announced recently. An organization, which provides important professional development to teachers in history, but does not support innovative civics education is the sole recipient of the grant. They will receive $1.5 million over 3 years.

By contrast, there are approximately 30 potential uses of funds defined in ESSA that support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). This funding equates to almost $5 billion across these appropriation levels. Of course, STEM education is critical for our students. But so is civics.

The value of civics education is not news to our federal government. In fact, through our federally funded USAID program, the State Department invests tens of million dollars in civics education programs abroad, recognizing that such programs are critical to the stability and viability of emerging democracies. The question persists: Why have we not applied this same approach and logic domestically? 

In another dose of opportunity for federal support of civics education, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosGOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout More insidious power grab than one attempted Jan. 6? Betsy DeVos not running for Michigan governor MORE has just released a list of Proposed Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs. 

It is encouraging to see that Proposed Priority 4 is “Fostering Knowledge and Promoting the Development of Skills that Prepare Students to be Informed, Thoughtful, and Productive Individuals and Citizens.” This priority, should it be confirmed, will support projects that address both “fostering knowledge of the common rights and responsibilities of American citizenship and civic participation, such as through civics education” and those that “improve student academic performance and better prepare students for employment, responsible citizenship, and fulfilling lives.”

This priority aligns closely with a new field of “action civics” education that we at Generation Citizen, along with other non-profit and research organizations, are leading. Action civics teaches students not only the facts of civics, but also the critical skills necessary to be active and engaged citizens in our democracy. Our students learn civics by doing civics, taking direct action to address the root causes of critical issues in their local communities.

Our students know the three branches of government and also have the research acumen to critically evaluate news sources. This is the type of education that with full appropriation, ESSA could — and should — support. 

Democrats and Republicans alike are talking about the needs for civics. As stated recently by Michael Bloomberg, “Today, there is a terrible lack of civic education in our schools. Civic education teaches us about the history behind our values, what it means to be a citizen in our democracy, and what obligations that imposes on us.” We are pleased to see DeVos echoing this sentiment.

However, this talk has not yet led to results. Fully funding ESSA’s civics education programs, and committing to the secretary’s proposed Priority 4 of civics education, present an opportunity to bridge party lines and demonstrate a bipartisan commitment to strengthening our democracy through focusing on its very foundations. We urge DeVos to solidify, and act upon Priority 4 and as Congress engages in budget conversations, it should ensure that civics education is front and center, not solely a budget rounding error.

Scott Warren is the co-founder and CEO of a national civics education non-profit Generation Citizen. Dana Harris is the organization’s manager of policy and advocacy