There is consensus across party lines that our current civic education systems need improvement so that all Americans can develop the civic knowledge, skills and attitudes to participate effectively in democratic life.
In a report last month, the National Commission for Military, National, and Public Service emphasized civic education and service learning as a way to increase citizen participation, suggesting the federal government invest $450 million a year on such efforts. That money alone won't be a magic potion for instantly improved civic learning infrastructures, but we can look to a close transatlantic ally, Germany, for an example of how to effectively dedicate government funds to promote a national value for civics and support a diverse field of civic education actors.
The modern German civic education system has its roots in the American and British democratic reeducation programs in West Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Since then, transatlantic connections in the field have been largely abandoned, but the well-developed and richly funded infrastructure for civic education has remained.
Certainly, Germany's 20th century history has much to do with this persistent value on civic education — as a stark reminder that democratic values and human rights cannot be taken for granted as stable or innate characteristics. But it is the government infrastructures and financial investment that allow for continuity and innovation of the field.
Germany's valuing of civic education is exemplified by the existence of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Housed in the Ministry of the Interior, it is responsible for promoting awareness of democracy and participation in politics through informational publications, training for teachers and practitioners, educational materials, school competitions and research. The agency supports a network of over 300 foundations, nonprofits and associations with funding, training and a network for collaboration. Notably, each of the 16 German states also has its own agency for civic education that acts independently.
Two other government bodies play a huge role in the federal strategy for democracy promotion: the Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women, and Youth and the Ministry of the Interior. The former's Child- and Youth Plan finances numerous measures to promote welfare through civic education, cultural education, media competences and other youth work. Its 'Demokratie Leben!' (Live Democracy!) program provides funding to civil society organizations through grants for initiatives that suit local realities and contribute to innovation in education and engagement programs. The Ministry of the Interior's 'Zusammenhalt durch Teilhabe' (Cohesion through Participation) campaign focuses its efforts for democratic participation specifically in rural and economically underdeveloped regions.
Not even counting smaller civic line-items from other agencies, the total investment in these three programs this year is more than 427 million euros, about $461 million. By comparison, the Department of Education estimates federal funding for civic education was just $5 million in the last fiscal year. Even the national commission's $450 million recommendation would put investment at about one-quarter of Germany's — $1.37 per capita, compared with $5.55.
These investments demonstrate the important role non-school civic education institutions play in the German model.
When Americans think of civic education, most of us recall the semester-long government course we took in high school. In reality, civic learning is happening all across our lives — in out-of-school-time programming, through local government, at higher educational institutions, online and at the family dinner table.
A landscape analysis released in December found the many U.S. non-school initiatives compete for limited funds or haven't traditionally been conceived of as civic education and, as a result, lack the support, funding and collaboration an established civic learning field would provide.
There is no question whether we as a nation should prioritize civic education, but rather how best to do so.
Nonprofits and foundations cannot bear the brunt of civic education overhaul alone. And the piecemeal, state-by-state approach to reform will be slow and incohesive. Appropriate government bodies and support for civic initiatives would provide much-needed recognition, coordination and structure to what is now a dynamic but often scattered terrain. The federal government should invest even a small percentage of the $3.2 billion that went to STEM education last year to set Americans up with the opportunity to effectively engage in our democracy.
A civic success story lies just across the Atlantic, proving that government leadership and investment can support a diverse civic education field and make civic engagement a priority.