Confronting a Civic Crisis: The Future of Our Democratic Republic is at Stake

By Liza Prendergast

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” This ideal, penned by Thomas Jefferson, has served as a bedrock of the American democratic republic for nearly 100 years. But, in 2017, the United States is struggling to live up to this promise.

The educational foundations of our civic house rest on shaky ground. Disturbing research conducted by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk indicates that, over time, young Americans have become less interested in politics than previous generations. Their research also finds that “In the United States…41 percent of those born during the interwar and initial postwar decades stat that it is ‘absolutely essential’ in a democracy that ‘civil rights protect people’s liberty.’ Among millennials, this share falls to 32 percent.” Moreover, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania research, conducted in September 2016, indicates that Americans’ civic knowledge has declined steadily since 2011. Annenberg’s national survey research revealed, for example, that 38 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government in 2011 but only 26 percent could do so in 2016. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—specifically the last Nation’s Report Card conducted in 2014—indicates that there was no significant change in eight grader scores in civics since 2010.

Despite these studies and other mounting evidence that portend a national civics crisis in the U.S., investments at the federal level in education for democratic citizenship—including in support for civics, government, and American history courses—have declined significantly. In 2011, unnecessary cuts by Congress reduced the national and international programs funded under the Education for Democracy Act from $35 million annually to $0, zeroing out funding for teacher professional development, K-12 civics curriculum, and public service projects in every U.S. state and congressional district. In that same period, funding for Teaching American History (TAH) grants dropped incrementally but rapidly, from $100 million to $0 annually. TAH grants provided critical support for teacher professional development across the country from 2002 to 2013.

Federal funding for these programs not only provided key support for teachers and students, it also leveraged state- and district-level donations from the private sector, enhanced linkages between universities and public schools, promoted private individual donations for civic purposes, and enabled local entities—such as state bar associations, nonprofit organizations, and state departments of education—to help drive democratic development at the local level. More than five years after the cuts, we are not only seeing a loss in the number of professional development opportunities for civics teachers, we have lost many opportunities to bring diverse civic communities together to address community-level problems. As a result, we are witnessing the slow erosion of fundamental commitments to democratic norms among the next generation of Americans.

Our recent history demonstrates that it is possible for the American people—and for our leaders in Congress and in state legislatures—to come to a national, bipartisan consensus on the importance of teaching civics, government, and history in schools. In the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, after many years without appropriations for civics, the U.S. Congress appropriated less than the amounts authorized, only appropriating $3.5 million of one authorization of $6.56 million. Part of that $3.5 million includes a solicitation released on June 9, 2017, by the U.S. Department of Education, for $1.8 million to fund American history and civic education through multiple competitive awards. Other small individual programs, such as the James Madison Legacy Project, a national initiative implemented by the Center for Civic Education targeting high-need students in middle and high schools, have provided opportunities to level the civic playing field, but funding is not adequate to match the needs in our public schools. Current support in Congress, while up slightly from 2011, stands in stark contrast to the strong bipartisan support that existed for the Education for Democracy Act, which was authorized by Congress in national legislation dating back to the 1980s through the 2000s, including in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Some have argued that private funding should supplant federal funding. But history demonstrates that private funding, alone, is not realistic to meet national need. Private sources have supported civic education and leadership activities at an average of about $37 million per year since 2011, according to Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. But these efforts are not nationwide and tend to target different types of programs (e.g., issue-based mobilization programs rather than educational programs) as well as different locations and institutions (e.g., private funding often targets individual universities). Moreover, some private funds support partisan causes or appear to have a political agenda. In short, private funding is not a replacement for the federal government funding states to foster the civic mission of public schools.

What can we do?

First, in 2018, we need to reengage Congress and legislators in every U.S. state. The civic education community and concerned citizens need to continue to identify and celebrate champions of civic education within the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. We need to empower not only champions who extol the virtues of our form of government, but those who are willing to commit real (and scarce) resources to ensuring that our democratic republic survives. To do so, we need to re-launch the successful Congressional Conferences on Civic Education, national efforts designed to build bipartisan support for civic education in Congress and in every state and congressional district. These conferences, conducted from 2003 to 2006, supported elected policymakers across the country to understand why funding quality civic education programming is key to ensuring that the American people themselves both drive and benefit from democracy education.

Second, the Congress needs to reestablish its support for national civic education programs with the same scope and breadth authorized and funded under the Education for Democracy Act. Such support provided equitable civic education resources in the form of free textbooks, professional development, and technical assistance to schools in every state and congressional district. This included a support for the Center for Civic Education’s We the People program on the U.S. Constitution.

Third, we must unite the civic education community behind a single campaign, managed by a bipartisan committee of national leaders committed to not only supporting reinstating funding for civic education at the national and state levels but also to building a new, modern movement able to navigate the sea changes needed to support our young people to be the only safe depository of our democratic norms and traditions extolled by Jefferson: good citizens.

This article was originally published by HuffPost on June 15, 2017. It is reprinted with permission of the author. The article is in memory of extraordinary civic educators Dave DuBois, Norma Wright, Roy Erickson, and Carlo Gamba: may the next generation of democracy educators live up to their legacies.

 

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