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A turning point for civics education?

Carney is a contributing writer. He also directs The Civic Circle, a member of the CivXNow Coalition.

When civic learning makes headlines these days, it’s typically to spotlight controversial book bans, screaming school board meetings, and bills to keep supposedly “divisive concepts” like racism out of the classroom.

But scratch beneath the surface, and the state of civics in 2023 is likely to be on the upswing. An omnibus spending bill passed late last year allocated $23 million in federal funding for civics and history education, triple the $7.75 million allocated the previous fiscal year. Voters of all ideological stripes continue to strongly support civic learning. And state lawmakers are backing a new wave of bills that expand rather than limit civics education, reversing last year’s trend.

To be sure, the new federal funding for civics education falls well short of the $1 billion proposed in the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a broad bipartisan bill to expand civics and history education that was introduced in the previous Congress but which has failed to advance. That bill, coupled with a pro-education White House, a resurgence in youth activism, and growing public concerns about the state of democracy, had raised hopes among educators for a “Sputnik moment” for the civics.

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Civics may not have its moon after all, but educators are still partying. Lobbying for the Civics Secures Democracy Act helped set the stage for last year’s $23 million hike. Supporters of the bill are hoping to see it reinstated, though the GOP’s control of the House now complicates the outlook. Meanwhile, they are cheering the first major increase in federal funding for civics in decades.

“We’re really excited about it,” says Shawn Healy, senior director of policy and advocacy for iCivics, a national civics provider that leads the more than 275 members of the CivXNow Coalition. “We will celebrate it. But we see it as a down payment.

The new funding includes $20 million in grants to eligible institutions, including nonprofits, colleges and universities, that use “evidence-based practices” to promote civic learning. These include history, government and civics education, mock democratic practices, service learning, and media literacy. It’s one step closer to bringing civics back into balance with STEM, which until now has received about $50 per student per year, compared to five cents per student for civics.

“The civics field has really been driven by nonprofits, curriculum providers, but it’s severely under-resourced and understaffed,” Healy says. “And that’s a challenge.”

State legislatures are also moving in a direction more supportive of civics education, even as controversies continue to simmer over how American history is taught. After GOP Governor Ron DeSantis stormed the College Board’s new Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies, the board announced revisions: The changes the board supports were unrelated to political pressure. DeSantis is one of dozens of conservative lawmakers who have advanced bills cracking down on educators.

Georgia, Florida and Mississippi are among 44 states that, since January 2021, have introduced laws or other measures to limit how teachers can discuss racism, sexism or critical race theory, according to Education Week. Such measures often rely on terms loosely defined as “divisive concepts” and misrepresent critical race theory — a university-level discipline that examines systemic and institutional racism — as something that is taught to young students.

However, the tide could be turning. In this state legislative session, iCivics estimates that more than three-quarters (78%) of the civics laws introduced thus far align with the group’s state policy priorities, which include strengthening civics course requirements, teacher training and standards. In the previous legislative session, fewer than half of the state civics bills introduced (37%) aligned with iCivics’ priorities.

Recent statewide victories for civics include new laws in New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island that all impose new requirements for civics classes at the middle and high school levels. In deep red Indiana, a 2021 law requires at least one semester of civics in middle school, and the creation of a public-private civics commission. All told, according to iCivics, about 16 states have enacted 17 laws in the past two years that strengthen civics education.

And conservative enthusiasm for learning content bans may wane as the political winds shift. The midterms saw the losses of a string of GOP gubernatorial candidates who had staged attacks on schools, including in Arizona, Kansas and Wisconsin.

Of course, education-focused culture wars remain popular with some Republicans. But for the vast majority of Americans, civics is a point of bipartisan agreement. The “wars of history” are “often fought against imaginary enemies,” notes More in Common in a December report on the topic.

While controversies about civics tend to be fueled by a handful of players on the fringes, the report found that “Americans of all political orientations want their children to learn a story that celebrates our strengths and also examines our failures”. This does not mean that the “historic wars” are over. But it may mean that voters, at least, would rather invest in civics than fight for it.

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