In the past decade, there has been movement to improve civics education nationwide. The “USA Civics Act of 2020: Understanding and Studying American Civics” was first proposed to the 116th Congress in 2019 (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). This bill would authorize the Department of Education to grant institutions of higher education funds specifically allocated to civic education. The stated intention of these specified academic programs is to “promote American political thought and history; the history, achievements, and impact of American representative democracy and constitutional democracies globally; and the means of participation in political and civic life” (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). This bill’s existence is encouraging in the attention it draws to the lack of effective civics education in the country and its introduction of tangible actions towards remedying that lack. This bill places importance on participation in political and civic life and targets the involvement of young adults in matters of civic engagement and learning. However, the grants awarded through this act are currently “focused on traditional American history and the history and achievements of Western civilization,” and this diction seems to resonate with the ideologies of Americanism and American exceptionalism (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). Though the suggestion of funding for civics education is important in any level of education, this bill is relevant only to institutions of higher education, not to elementary or secondary sites of education. The focus on developing civic knowledge at the undergraduate level could imply that civics education at the elementary and secondary levels have not been sufficient to educate engaged citizens. It is relevant to pursue civics education at the undergraduate and graduate levels of education, but a foundation in civic knowledge should be a necessary precursor to higher civics education. Regardless, the allocation of funds to civics education for young adults is an important step towards institutionalizing high-quality civics education.
The “Civics Learning Act of 2019” proposes meaningful solutions to the lack of effective civics education in the earlier years of public education (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2019). The motivations for the bill are named by Congress: “the dearth of civics lessons available to students across the United States has helped to foster a political climate that is deeply partisan and divided” and “a lack of knowledge on the basics of the structure of our democratic republic creates an increasingly ill-prepared electorate which overtime [sic] has, and will continue to, contribute to a weakened democracy” (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2019). The connection between the political climate and the character of civics education is important to comprehend, as civics education will always in some way reflect the character of the society in which it is being taught. A weakened democracy and ineffective civics education are in cyclical dialogue with each other, each informing the further degradation or improvement of the other. In response to these observations, the “Civics Learning Act of 2019” amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to authorize expanded funding for K-12 civics education that includes:
before, during, and after-school and extracurricular activities, activities that include service learning and community service projects that are linked to school curriculum, activities that encourage and support student participation in school governance, and online and video game-based learning. (H.R.849, 2019-2020)
The allocation of funding to hands-on learning, service learning, and participatory learning through this bill is an encouraging step in the direction of the type of experiential learning that is necessary for effective civics education. The attention given to innovation in civics learning is crucial because “innovative youth programs” are “a method that Plato, Erasmus, Rousseau, Dewey, and others found generative [for civics education] in earlier times” and remain a key generator of effective civics education in modern times (Levine & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2010). Under the “Civics Learning Act of 2019,” the Department of Education must also invest a percentage of the civics learning grant funds to diverse organizations that serve students at the elementary and secondary levels (H.R.849, 2019-2020). The involvement of community-based civic learning organizations acknowledges the importance of community partnership in experiential civics education and represents an innovative approach to civics education that transgresses from traditional classroom-based models. Overall, the investment of grant money into funding these participatory approaches to civics education demonstrates a commitment to serving student learners as developing citizens. The passing of this bill would be an important step in providing comprehensive civics education to students in U.S. public schools, though further steps must be taken to combat the systemic inequity in educational quality and accessibility (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013).
The American Civics Act addresses the expectation that all students should be able to demonstrate proficiency in civics education before graduating high school. Arizona was the first state to pass the American Civics Act, though the initiative could be enacted in any state. The Arizona Legislature passed the American Civics Act in 2015 and it went into effect two years later, requiring all students to pass a basic civics test before graduating (Ducey, 2017). In 2018, the Arizona Legislature also passed a Senate Bill that has the purpose of further promoting civics education through the creation of the American Civics Education Pilot program for high school (S.B.1444, 2018). The legal expectation in Arizona is that all high school students take one semester of a civics course and complete a basic civics assessment as a graduation requirement (H.B. 2064., 2015). The required assessment is identical to the naturalization test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and students are required to correctly answer at least 60 of the 100 questions. The ratio of 6 to 10 is the same threshold for passing the naturalization interview required by the USCIS to become a citizen. The American Civics Act permits students to retake the civics test as many times as necessary to pass, and local district boards have the power to decide the administration of the assessment (H.B. 2064., 2015). Questions of the validity and relevance of the naturalization test as means of assessing civic readiness are left unaddressed. Certainly, it follows the trend of prioritizing standardization and quantitative approaches to assessment over qualitative or participatory approaches to evaluation.
On the statewide level, Colorado has demonstrated a legal commitment to civic education. In 2004, Colorado passed Title 22, a statute that ensures students of the state the right to an education regarding the history, culture, and civil government of the state of Colorado and the United States. This statute is a work in development, with many revisions since its introduction. The most recent revision of the text of Title 22 states:
The history and civil government of the United States and of the state of Colorado, which includes the history, culture, and social contributions of minorities, including, but not limited to, American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups, and the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities, and the contributions and persecution of religious minorities, must be taught in all the public schools of the state. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004)
The recognition of the contributions of diverse and intersectional minority groups is a transgressive step in the practice of inclusive civics education. The statute requires students to complete a course on the civil government of the United States and the state of Colorado as a condition of high school graduation (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). Title 22 secures state-funded support for contemporary and effective civics education, requiring the department of education to support local districts in “developing and promoting programs for elementary and secondary students that address the state model content standards for civics and promote best practices in civic education” (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). This assistance offered to local districts throughout the state is funded through the “state education fund created in section 17(4) of article IX of the state constitution” (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). The allocation of state funds to ensure quality contemporary civics education in all public schools is a notable demonstration of dedication to civic education by the state of Colorado.
In Rhode Island, a grassroots movement led by students and families sought to establish a constitutional right to education effective in preparing students to fully participate as citizens in a democracy. This movement and court case, Cook v. Raimondo, represents the necessity to guarantee students access to the constitutional rights to understandings of economic, social, and political systems sufficient to inform educated civic choices and engaged participation in civic activities (Teachers College, 2020). Though Judge Smith ruled against this petition in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island because he was not able to legally prove that civics education should be a Constitutional right, the text of his ruling encourages further pursuit of the ensured right to civics education. In the decision for Cook v. Raimondo, Judge Smith included the opinion that there “should be some other remedy for the nation’s education system, which, in his view, is imperiling the future of American democracy” (Teachers College, 2020). This case and Judge Smith’s decision have effectively drawn attention to the democratic necessity for civics education to be guaranteed as a right to all public school students.
This case, now named Cook v. Mckee, brought to light the reality that nowhere in The Constitution is the right to civics education guaranteed and that without civics education for its students, American democracy might indeed perish from the earth (Teachers College, 2020). This points to the dynamic and processual nature of democracy and civics education; both practices must evolve to best serve the evolving society. In 2022, this case reached a settlement between both sides that agreed to strengthen the civic education practices in Rhode Island. To better prepare students as capable and involved citizens, the Rhode Island Department of Education is establishing a task force including student plaintiffs and their counsels. In return for their position as state advisors on civic education, the plaintiffs agreed to withdraw the petition to take Cook v. Mckee to the Supreme Court. The inclusion of students in the task force for improving civic education is meaningful in that it officially values the ideas of those who are on the receiving end of civics education and whose positionality entails insights that others might not be capable of producing. This could mark the beginning of a potential national movement to legally revitalize civics education as a crucial and undeniable part of public education.
Another recent legislative trend that took hold in 2021 and 2022 is the effort to restrict or completely ban the teaching of certain topics and texts. For example, the national debate over the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in education led to numerous proposed and passed legislative bans to using the acclaimed legal theory to inform educational practice on the statewide level. Critical Race Theory directly relates to questions of high-quality civics education as an exemplar of how to engage students in current events and controversial issues. By the end of July, 2021, twenty six states had proposed banning CRT from being incorporated in any nuance in public schools (Education Week, 2021). These new bills were all proposed by Republican legislators and target the flexibility of how teachers can discuss matters of equality, justice, and interlocking systems of oppression (Education Week, 2021). Regulating the way history and society are discussed in the classroom is an extremely contentious political choice, as education and institutions of learning are highly politicized by nature and can serve as reinforcement for unjust social structures through the teaching of silence and compliance (Freire, 1970). The choice to maintain the status quo validates systems and structures that are centuries old and may no longer reflect modern democracy or reality. Targeting CRT in the educational field can serve to uphold white supremacy by shaping what is shared in the classroom and by erasing CRT from educational policy, which should function to acknowledge and respond to structures and effects of institutionalized racism that are upheld within the schooling system (NPR, 2021).
Similarly, bans on books overtly limit the potential for social change in order to maintain an oppressive and unjust status quo. To ban books is to erase certain histories and perspectives from the publicly accessible curriculum. The American Library Association has been collecting data on banned books since 1990 and compiling lists of the most challenged books and most frequently banned books in the nation (American Library Association, 2021). According to their data, a surge in 2021 established a new high point for overt attempts to ban books from realms of public education (Harris & Alter, 2022). The majority of targeted books are about marginalized people and cultures, specifically Black and LGBTQIA+ identities (American Library Association, 2021; Harris & Alter, 2022). The attempts to ban books translates into attempts to bar certain identities, cultures, and consequently students, from full membership in the classroom community and thus in the greater society. The exclusion and marginalization of students, who are all emergent citizens, is an active obstacle to effective civic education that validates each civic participant as a full member of our society. Students should have access to diverse perspectives and truths to develop their own critical lens through which they can engage and participate as active citizens.
The data on the content of banned books aligns with the recent movement to prevent discussion of LGBTQIA+ identities within the realm of public education. This legal movement to restrict rights for LGBTQ youth was first established in Florida through the creation and signing of a bill that is colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity during the early elementary years and restricts discussion during the later elementary years (Diaz, 2022). The barring of LGBTQIA+ identities doesn’t simply limit the introduction of these concepts in the classroom but effectively prevents students from discussing their own lives or identities. Florida is not the only state considering the implementation of this sort of bill; as of April 2022 twelve additional states have proposed bills relating to imposing limitations and prohibitions on the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity (Jones & Franklin, 2022). The exclusion of these identities from the educational realm marginalizes students who are not cishetero or who have close relationships with non-cishetero people in their lives. Civic education regarding U.S. democracy should acknowledge the historical exclusion of marginalized groups from full civic participation in order to move towards inclusive democracy. Civic education will never move towards this goal if students are limited in their civic participation through the banning of topics that are directly relevant to civic justice and the full membership of all citizens in our society.