Making the case for more civics in the classroom

Making the case for more civics in the classroom

(District of Columbia) After many years of being pushed away from the core curriculum in most public schools, civic education may be poised for a comeback—at least, that’s what some hope.

As Congress deliberates the 2018 budget plan, some advocates are pushing hard for an increase in federal money to support instruction in a number of liberal arts subjects including civics, history and social studies.

“I’ve worn out two pairs of shoes so far this year walking the halls,” said Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a program of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re feeling good that Congress will really finally appropriate a significant amount here.”

Although there’s currently just $1.7 million set aside for funding new professional development programs supporting history and civics education, there is an expectation that Congress will add as much as $500 million into Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act that states can use for the same purpose.

The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants were originally envisioned as a resource for states and school districts to provide a “well-rounded” education that could include music, the arts, environmental courses as well as civics.

The spending plan released earlier this spring by President Donald Trump provided no money for Title IV, but the House leadership has offered to put $500 million toward the Enrichment Grants.

When Congress and former President Barack Obama were negotiating ESSA there was an agreement to collapse into a block grant a number of small federal funding programs that supported health, safety, the arts, technology and history and civics education. Originally, Title IV was to have been funded at $1.5 billion.

While most school boards and state educational agencies continue to focus on reading and math as well as the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineer and math—there is also growing interest in making civics a centerpiece of the curriculum.

Two states—Nevada and Delaware—made specific mention of civics education as part of the ESSA state plans. And there are also ongoing campaigns in California, Florida and Illinois to encourage districts to teach students—especially those in high school—more about how government works.

The effort comes as the average voter’s knowledge about civics and government is perhaps at its lowest ebb in decades.

Consider that a poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted last fall found only 30 percent of adults were able to name all three branches of government. The survey found a similar number believed that a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could be appealed. And almost 40 percent of participants said that the president has the power to declare war.

It wasn’t always this way.

“Civics education has in the past held a significant place in the school curriculum—that isn’t so true anymore,” said McConnell. “Most high schools in the sixties required students to take three courses in civics and U.S. history. They’ve been largely replaced by just one on the dry structure of the government. It’s too little, too late.”