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Philanthropies Want to Fund Civics Education. But How?

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 04, 2019 5 min read
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Major education philanthropists are apparently waking up to the issue of K-12 civics education—and are interested in funding it—but what projects they’ll fund and what those projects will catalyze remain to be seen.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new paper issued as a summary of sorts of some of the issues philanthropies have been wrestling with. It was written by Raj Vinnakota, the president of the Woodrow Wilson national Fellowship Foundation, although this paper is not connected to that foundation’s work.

In 2018, a group of philanthropies, apparently representing a range of ideological perspectives (the Hewlett Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation were both involved) launched a project to study the state of civic knowledge in preparation for making investments in civics education. They followed up with a two-day meeting last September. (Researchers and practitioners also participated in the meetings. Journalists did not.)

The report summarizes what they’ve learned, and probably will underpin the upcoming civics education grants the philanthropies may choose to make.

Much of the report outlines some of the same themes other recent civics education reports have touched on. It notes that while there’s general agreement on the foundations of civics content knowledge, there’s much less consensus on how to inculcate civic behaviors into students in ways that becomes a habit of mind and action. It notes that many of the most powerful instances for civic action aren’t in the classroom, but are instead through civics learning. (Education Week has found that, with the recent rise in youth-protest movements, schools have struggled to connect youth activism to the formal civics curriculum.)

Efforts to research effective civics education and define standards of practice are nascent and challenging to do, it continues. History is often taught without recognition of the civic values that underpin what’s selected and prioritized.

But there were three areas in the report that seem especially new and noteworthy.

What have we learned so far in our ongoing Citizen Z civics education project? Find some early insights in this post.

An open-source database. The groups have created an online wiki that they hope will be an online conference room of sorts for those interested in connecting to other civic organizations, researchers, and groups. The open-source wiki lists organizations that work in the civics education space, links to research articles and studies on civics education, and legislation or regulations governing civics education in the state. (Go add your organization if it’s not there already!)

Potential sources of tension. Philanthropies are notoriously risk-averse, so it’s interesting to get a glimpse into what they think the major sticking points are that could undermine collaboration among various groups supporting civics. Some of them are fairly well known, such as the tension between “tradition and change"—broadly speaking, those advocates who believe we should prioritize the nation’s founding ideals in civics education and those who think we should priorize action to bring reality more in line with those ideals.

But to my mind, the most notable is an acknowledgement that the civics education field is almost entirely made up of “coastal elites,” urbanites, and most of all, white people.

“Currently most of the players in the civic learning space are privileged white people. The field will need to recruit and develop leaders from the African-American, Latinx, Asian-American, and Native American communities. Without contributions from these communities, the field cannot hope to build a new, broadly shared consensus about what quality civic learning should look like in the 21st century,” the report says.

(This, by the way, is a phenomenon I’ve also noticed about the civics education space, and it’s a complaint I’ve heard anecdotally from a number of sources, though most of them have not been willing to discuss it on the record.)

The Hewlett Foundation has made two grants—one $75,000 grant to iCivics, a curriculum and advocacy group and one $50,000 grant to Generation Citizen, an “action civics” provider—to help increase racial diversity in the field. (It has funded other activities by both organizations as well.) A spokeswoman for Hewlett did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

High costs. In a final section, the report notes that building a “coalition of supporters” will need “enormous reservoirs of money,” far beyond the estimated 1.5 percent of philanthropic giving for elections, campaigns, civil liberties, and other democracy-building topics.

“Building a field requires building infrastructure,” the report says. “We will need to create and maintain clearinghouses of information. We will need to facilitate information exchange and collaboration, hold conferences, publish reports, support research. We will need to fund professional development and promising entrepreneurs to test new ideas.”

Notably absent in the report is the civic implications of having private philanthropies so invested in designing K-12 civics programming. This is not a new question or concern: Scholars have written whole volumes on the significance of philanthropies that are not themselves democratically run bodies shaping public policy, particularly within the frame of philanthropies’ support for charter schools, which straddle a gray public-private line. But these issues become even more “meta” when talking about civics.

Here, by the way, I’d also gently remind philanthropies that there’s already good work happening. There are some powerful examples of great teaching, some of which we’ve documented in our continuing Citizen Z project. Some teachers are bucking the political maelstrom to teach powerful lessons on impeachment. Some are doing wonderful interdisciplinary lessons, showing how math can be a powerful lever for exploring the issues of voting, Constitutional representation, and social policies. Some districts are making civics projects part of their graduation requirements or are supporting student decisionmaking in other innovative ways.

Finally, Education Week wants teachers to be part of the discussion on civics education, too. And we have a plan to help include your voices. In January, we’ll be hosting a free forum in Minneapolis where teachers will get a chance to weigh in on how they think we can best prepare the next generation of young civic leaders. It’s hopefully the first in a series of similar events. Seating is limited so sign up by clicking on the hyperlink in this sentence.

Do you have a good idea for teaching civics? Share it with us at and we might put you in a video.