Since the dawn of the Trump era, Democrats have offered a series of increasingly dire warnings about American democracy in crisis. Republicans are attacking voting rights. They’re neglecting election security. They’re defending the rigged system of gerrymandering that maintains their stranglehold on power. But last week, at a Constitution Day conference in Washington, D.C., speakers addressed another growing concern that underlies any conversation about the health of our body politic: the sorry state of civics education in America’s schools.
“It’s really an important issue,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told me midday, as she picked up one of the unpretentious boxed lunches laid out for conference attendees at George Washington University, “because there does seem to be a disconnect between what people in our country know and understand about the way the government is supposed to work and how it actually works.” More fundamentally, Clinton said, “If people don’t know the basics of how democracy is supposed to function, it’s kind of hard to convince them on an ongoing basis that they have to be involved.”
This isn’t some far-off hypothetical from the woman most Americans voted to send to the White House. Just this month, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that a mere 40 percent of American adults can name the three branches of the federal government. In February, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that most Americans in every state but Vermont would fail the U.S. Citizenship Exam. Research links civics education to voting, and America’s voter turnout lags behind that of most developed countries. Only 56 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016. And roughly 40 percent vote typically in midterm elections, though turnout hit a historic 53 percent last year.
Improving civics education might sound like an old-fashioned solution to our present woes, and it’s certainly not a panacea. But the idea is gaining traction in Washington, and especially in the states, with support from Democrats and Republicans. “In the 2018 legislative session alone, at least 31 states proposed 115 bills or resolutions related to civics education,” the National Conference of State Legislatures reported. Of those measures, 15 were enacted. “That counts as something of a deluge for a niche policy area that has traditionally been favored by the earnest and the academic,” observed the 74, an education news website.
In the scope of recent American history, this is a new development. “For the most part, civics education has been cut over and over for the past few decades,” said Rock The Vote President Carolyn DeWitt, whose group creates and disseminates a high-school curriculum on voting and helps teachers register students to vote. “Today, we have 31 states in which students only have to learn about democracy for one semester and 10 states—20 percent of the country—aren’t required to take civics at all.”
The question of how, precisely, to change those numbers came up at last week’s conference, titled “In Defense of American Democracy,” sponsored by Clinton’s political group Onward Together, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Albert Shanker Institute. Michelle Burris, a senior policy associate at the liberal Century Foundation think tank, stood up in the audience to ask the morning panel about civics education “curriculum and pedagogy and promoting racially and socioeconomically integrated schools.”
MSNBC host Joy Reid, one of the panelists, responded: “When people don’t know what autocracy is, because they didn’t have a good civics education, people don’t even know what they’re buying into … I spend every weekend on my show re-explaining impeachment, because people don’t understand that impeachment doesn’t mean Trump gets fired. I keep calling it an indictment to put it in regular-people language, because people really think that if you impeach him he will go away.”
The cable news anchor floated a specific prescription: While Democrats had been “very reluctant” to champion a unified national curriculum, rather than allowing the current patchwork of approaches in states, it was time to embrace a nationally coherent framework. “In theory, a healthy nation should have one history,” Reid said, “and right now this nation has any history a school board wants it to have.”
Others are more skeptical. Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, told me that efforts to establish national curricula had “floundered” in the past precisely because education is a state and local responsibility. He said his group develops and distributes lesson plans for teachers to support civics education, but dismissed a “top-down mandate, which, by the time it gets to the classroom, is virtually non-recognizable.”
Agreeing on how to teach civics is a perennial challenge to begin with, especially in an era as polarized as ours. Another challenge for advocates is competing with more immediate issues of democracy reform in the age of Trump. “Election security is an imminent issue,” Casey allowed, “whereas civics is something where the positive effects will be seen over time.”
Clinton didn’t mention civics education in her address to the conference, focusing instead on election security, voting rights, gerrymandering, and online propaganda ahead of the 2020 election. But she did speak of “the responsibility that we have from generation to generation to pass on the fundamentals of our democracy.”
That message seems to be resonating. On Capitol Hill, a small group of lawmakers are getting behind national legislation. The Civics Learning Act, introduced this past January in the House of Representatives, would authorize $30,000,000 in K-12 civics-education funding. The bill now has 67 co-sponsors, including the GOP’s Tom Cole and Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Katie Hill, Adam Schiff, David Cicilline, and Jamie Raskin.
In June, Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Chris Coons introduced the USA Civics Act in the Senate, aiming to “reauthorize and modernize an American history and civics grant program under the Higher Education Act,” according to a press release. That bill’s seven co-sponsors include 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren.
As it happens, Warren is probably the candidate for whom talking up civics education would come most naturally. She’s already leaning into her identity as a teacher, and she could easily add this issue to a forthcoming K-12 education platform or her existing plan to save democracy. A more informed, engaged citizenry may not have the visceral appeal of taxing the wealthy or purging politics of big money, but this much is clear: it would be big, structural change.