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Preparing the next generation of citizens requires bringing back civics

FILE – In this March 8, 2017 file photo, high school teacher Natalie O’Brien, center, hands out papers during a civics class called “We the People,” at North Smithfield High School in North Smithfield, R.I. Students in Rhode Island asked a federal appeals court to affirm that all public school students have a constitutional right to a civics education because they felt they weren’t taught how to meaningfully participate in a democratic and civil society. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Buried in the year-end omnibus spending bill, Congress delivered a significant, new investment in civics education that will help cultivate the next generation of engaged citizens and strengthen American democracy. 

The unheralded provision, which drew bipartisan support in the House and Senate, provides $23 million for K-12 civics education, including a competitive grant program for universities and nonprofits offering evidence-based, innovative approaches to improve the quality of education in civics, government and American history inside and outside the classroom.   

Many of us of a certain age remember learning civics as part of a required school curriculum. For today’s students, civics is more likely a patchwork of social studies classes that cover the mere basics, if it’s taught at all. Only seven states require one year of civics or government studies; 13 states have no civics course requirement at all. Since 2000, federal spending on civics education has been slashed by more than 90 percent to just $4 million a year — that’s around five cents per student annually compared to $50 per student on STEM.  

The results are disturbing. Only 47 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government (25 percent cannot name any), and more than half feel disaffected by our system of government and pessimistic about our democracy.  

We have an opportunity and an obligation to turn this around for Gen Z. From an early age, they have been on the frontlines of urgent issues, including climate changecommunity violencemental healtheconomic uncertainty and immigration. They are laser-focused on the future and embody a spirit of self-empowerment that big change is possible. However, they are also losing faith in institutions, from the government to the media to corporate America. They are skeptical of elected officials on both sides of the aisle. For many of them, the verdict is out on whether democracy works for all. Investments in civics can increase their interest in engaging in civic life and help them learn ways to do so productively.  

This new funding, signed into law by President Biden, is an important step, but much more is needed. The Civics Secures Democracy Act, sponsored by bipartisan members in the House and Senate — including Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and supported by the CivXNow coalition (which was founded by iCivics, where one of us serves as an executive director)  — offers one model and roadmap: a $1 billion investment across K-12 and higher education to expand educational programming in history and civics, with funding available for state education agencies, nonprofits and institutions of higher education and research.

But federal funding alone is insufficient to meet the scope of the challenge we face. State and local governments must also step up, and the private sector has a responsibility to participate and help lead the way. While the federal government should not mandate school curricula, it can spur and support efforts by local schools and communities to prepare young people for their critical role in our system of self-government.  

With this funding comes an opportunity to not only reinvest in civic learning but to reimagine it with the next generation.  

Civics for the 21st century must be equal parts civic knowledge, skills and attitudes — inside and outside the classroom. Essential civic knowledge is more than how government works; it requires a nuanced understanding of how our country has evolved and an active exploration of current affairs that reflect diverse perspectives. Civic skills should extend beyond voting; critical thinking, using one’s voice and the willingness and tools to debate and bridge divides can also be taught and encouraged. Finally, civic attitudes matter, such as community building, hope in the future of democracy and a willingness to do the hard work of citizenship.  

Our communities and workplaces are also civics classrooms, providing opportunities for young people to learn and practice civic skills through tutoring programs, after-school service opportunities and skills-based internships and jobs. We can harness the power of technology to develop new learning tools like games, simulations and competitions. Social media, so often misused to damage democracy, can offer interest-driven pathways that enable young people to connect and collaborate to help their communities.  

Recent threats to our democracy underscore that this is the moment to rebuild the nation’s civic strength. Doing so requires a larger and more creative investment in civic education and opportunities that promote citizen engagement. If we want more young adults to be fully engaged citizens, we must invest in civic learning and leadership for the next generation now.  

Rajiv Vinnakota is president of The Institute for Citizens and Scholars, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating engaged citizens. Louise Dubé  is the executive director of iCivics, which founded CivXNow, a coalition of more than 270 organizations working to make civic education and engagement a national priority. 

Tags Chris Coons Civic education in the United States Education in the United States John Cornyn K-12 education Omnibus spending bill Politics of the United States

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