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For educators, a time of opportunity after civic life's current stress test

Jill Biden and Joe Biden

With Bidens in the White House, civic education should get more support.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

Civic educators watched last week's riotous assault on the Capitol with a mixture of alarm and hope. The mob's brazen disregard for the truth and the rule of law shook teachers around the nation, but also made a stunning case for the need to invest in civic learning, which could enjoy a breakthrough year in 2021.

A bipartisan bill to invest $1 billion in civic education, a teacher-friendly incoming president, popular support for civic learning, a surge in youth activism — and the fragile state of American democracy itself — have all combined to create "sort-of a Sputnik moment" for civics, says Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics.

Her organization, the nation's leading provider of civic learning resources, is leading a 144-member CivXNow Coalition of civic education groups that is working to mobilize allies from the Girl Scouts to the American Bar Association, along with legions of educators, students and teachers, to support the bipartisan Educating for Democracy Act.

Authored in the Senate by Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of President-elect Joe Biden, the bill would dole out $1 billion to states for American history and civics programs and ramp up teacher training and student assessments. A House version was introduced by Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro and Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole.

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The bill sets out to reverse chronic underinvestment in civic learning, which now receives just 5 cents in federal funding per student each year — compared with $50 per student annually for STEM education.

"I'm really heartened by the fact that the bill in the House and the bill in the Senate are bipartisan, despite the billion-dollar price tag," says Dubé. "That tells me that our political leaders recognize the depth of the problem. And it would be transformative for this field, for students and for educators."

The same hurdles that have plagued civic education for decades remain, of course.

Civic learning tends to get lost between the cracks of social studies, history and geography, can spook teachers wary of political controversies, and has triggered partisan disputes over whether students should learn facts and dates or how to transform communities. Only nine states and D.C. required a full year of civics or government studies to graduate as of 2018, though dozens of state legislatures will be mulling bills in their 2021 sessions to mandate more civic learning.

President Trump has undermined civic education both directly and indirectly, some argue, by modeling uncivil behavior as well as by roiling partisan disputes over what students should learn.

He has bullied and jeered at detractors, flouted the truth and the rule of law, assailed representative democracy with his unfounded voter fraud claims — and has now ended up as the first president impeached two times. Even as the nation grappled last year with racial reckoning, and students clamored for greater equity and diversity in classroom materials, Trump signed an executive order to promote "patriotic education" that he said would counter efforts to "paint America as a systemically racist country."

The Trump era may also have created an opening for civic education, however.

Americans' civic knowledge actually increased in 2019, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a product of the president's constant clashes with Congress over budgets, immigration, impeachment and executive power. Trump's controversial presidency also helped spur record voter turnout, including among young Americans fired up over issues like race, global warming and gun safety.

Public support for civic learning cuts across party and ideology. Pollster Frank Luntz found in a survey last year that more than half of voters in both parties identified civic education as the best way to strengthen American identity.

Curriculum standards for civics, history and social studies, which vary by state but which in many cases have drawn fire as outdated, facts-heavy and lacking diverse perspectives, may also be in for a reset. A bipartisan group of national educators is poised to unveil a new roadmap for civic learning with the help of a $650,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Education Department.

Led by iCivics — in collaboration with Arizona State, Harvard and Tufts universities — the roadmap is expected to stress critical thinking over rote memorization, and to encourage students to embrace and actively engage in constitutional democracy. To be unveiled in March, the project is dubbed "Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners," and sets out to define what students should know with an emphasis on civic agency, equity, diversity and inclusion.

Both the roadmap and the $1 billion legislation may find allies in the top ranks of the new administration. Biden is poised to move the Education Department in a new direction and the new first lady, Jill Biden, is a community college professor. Betsy DeVos, Trump's only Education secretary until quitting last week after the mob stormed the Capitol, clashed with teachers and promoted controversial charter schools, but Biden has pledged to invest in teacher salaries and training.

The biggest hurdle facing the bill may be the coronavirus pandemic, which will continue to suck all the oxygen out of the education policy room until schools and politicians figure out a way to safely reopen classrooms and help students make up what they've lost during virtual learning.

Another challenge is that the Educating for Democracy Act will likely be considered as part of the reauthorization of the federal law governing federal aid to elementary and secondary schools, which invariably stirs up disputes over the shared role of states and the federal government over testing, standards and unfunded mandates.

Nevertheless, Dubé is cautiously optimistic civic education may finally be ripe for revival. If nothing else, the mandate for it may never have been more evident. "Clearly, we are a nation so polarized as to be dysfunctional," she said. "And that polarization cannot keep going on in a system that asks for compromise."

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

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