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$1 Billion for Civics Education? Bipartisan Bill Eyes Dramatic Federal Investment

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 17, 2020 3 min read
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A bipartisan proposal in Congress would dramatically increase the federal government’s investment in civics education and would require states to participate in the only national gauge of student learning in civics and history every two years.

History and civics have always been languished behind math and reading where federal interest has been concerned. The government’s current major investment, the American History and Civics grants, clocks in at only about $5 million annually for providers and teacher professional development.

The new proposal, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has a broad range of support from social studies and civics organizations and eyes a much larger role for the feds in this neglected content area. It would authorize $1 billion in all toward the two subjects.

The bulk of this funding would support four types of competitive grants. The first would go to states, which would pass most of the funding to districts to aid their civics education programs. The second type would go to nonprofits that provide curriculum and training for civics; and the third, to higher education-based teacher-preparation programs. All three of these grants would prioritize districts and providers serving traditionally underserved rural and urban students and English-language learners.

The fourth grant program would support researchers to study students’ civic learning and effective teaching methods.

$1 billion sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s worth putting it in context of some of the feds’ other investments in education: The largest K-12 program, Title I, which supports extra services for needy students, is funded at about $16 billion, while the Carl D. Perkins program, which supports career-technical education, is currently funded at about $1.3 billion. (The largest content-area program in recent memory was Reading First, a $1 billion early-reading program that Congress discontinued in the late 2000s.)

It also bears underscoring here that it would be up to legislators and appropriators on Capitol Hill to decide whether to include this in an upcoming funding bill. The bipartisan nature of the bill is a good start and clearly an indicator of what’s been a groundswell of interest in civics education over the past two to three years.

Nevertheless, as with so many other things, bipartisanship tends to be pretty surface level these days, and some pretty poisonous politics of the moment could complicate matters. There’s also a huge amount of other things vying for funding attention, including a second COVID-19 relief bill still be hashed out.

Put another way, it’s easy to support civics in theory. But student activism around gun violence, environmental issues, and now on racial disparities in policing in recent months have raised difficult questions for educators to handle, and made some advocates much warier about the topic. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic raises a host of questions about the roles and responsibilities of the federal government, local governments, and citizens in protecting one another—but many of them are already politicized.

President Trump, meanwhile, has claimed that the U.S. Department of Education would investigate and withhold funds from schools that teach the 1619 Project, though the federal government has long been prohibited from prescribing curriculum. Trump’s reelection campaign has also said it wants schools to teach American exceptionalism. These are all major subtexts lurking behind civics education, as we’ve written here at Education Week.

Read all of Education Week’s award-winning civics education coverage. Go here to learn more about our Citizen Z project.

A Boost for the ‘Nation’s Report Card’

Meanwhile, the bill would put the history and civics exams administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, on equal footing to the two most frequently tested subjects, math and reading. To receive their grants, states would be required to participate in those assessments so the results could be reported out at the state level.

That’s a change from current practice: History and civics are slotted to be administered only at grade 8 in the next two exam cycles, and the results are only reported nationally. (The last time they were administered in all three grade levels was in 2010.)

Read the full proposal below.

Image: Getty