Itai Dinour -

Nov 21, 2022

Investing in Civic Education to Safeguard Our Democracy

Students in a classroom.

On National Civics Day (yes, it’s a thing every October 27), I joined a community of educators, students, policymakers, philanthropists, and concerned citizens at Our Civics: Safeguarding American Democracy, an event organized by More Perfect, to call for more investments and bipartisan support for civic education as a path to bridge divides and reduce polarization in our country.

The majority of Americans across the political spectrum support more funding to ensure every child receives an adequate civic education, yet over the last twenty years, 44% of school districts reduced how much time educators spend on social studies in elementary schools since the passing of No Child Left Behind. The teaching of civics, a subset of the broader social studies field, often receives even less attention and resources than nearly all other subject areas. It is estimated that the federal government spends $.05 per student on civics education compared to $50 per student on STEM. The lack of investment in civic education is alarming because civic knowledge provides developmental, academic, and economic benefits to young people and our society at large.

Fortunately, there is a growing coalition of organizations working together as part of the More Perfect campaign to reverse this trend and elevate the many ways young people can engage in a pluralistic, participatory democracy. These organizations were prominently featured at the Our Civics: Safeguarding American Democracy event, including in a panel I was fortunate to moderate.

Throughout the day, panelists made three compelling cases for universal civic education:

  1. We know it works.
  2. We know that voters, parents, and business leaders want it and believe that it should be prioritized and funded.
  3. We know of innovative models that already exist and how to do it well.

During our conversation, Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University summarized decades of research on the relationship between one’s civics education and their future participation in the political process and within their community. In addition, Dr. Carol Geary Schneider of the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Coalition summarized a recent report highlighting how civic engagement in higher education not only leads to increased personal and social responsibility but also enhances career-related skills and improves college graduation and retention rates.

The research findings bore out an experience shared by a high school senior in Cypress, California on a different panel. “The reason that we are able to have those discussions, to agree [and] to disagree peacefully even if our viewpoints aren't exactly the same,” said Viren Mehta about dinner-table conversations with her father about political events, “is because I've been able to learn through my civics education that it is extremely important to democratically debate and have different viewpoints.” Healthy connections across divides can nourish ourselves, our families, and democracy.

Brent Buchanan, President and Founder of Cygnal, a political consulting firm that is known for its polling work in conservative communities, shared the results of a recently completed poll that illustrated support for civics across ideological divides. Their data, with an oversample for likely GOP primary voters, revealed that 66% of voters think civics in schools should be further emphasized. Moreover, 78.3% of voters believe that students should be exposed to multiple viewpoints, even ones they disagree with. "Civic education has some of the highest support levels of any issue I have tested this year,” said Buchanan. “It proves there is broad support across all segments of the American electorate for schools to provide more civic education and Congress to better fund it."

What is powerful about this day is that there is growing evidence that civic learning skills overlap with the essential skills needed to succeed in an increasingly diverse workplace. This global shift is helping more companies and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce get involved in improving access to civic education in our school system. As Chamber executive Neil Bradley reflected, “I think you will see more and more business leaders engaging, not just for funding, but for states to… [make] sure that this a priority in the curriculum in their schools.” I hope he is right.

The good news is there are innovative efforts across the country to advance civics. At the event, a panel of current and former state education chiefs from Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and Washington reflected on the opportunities and challenges they are facing locally. I was particularly interested in the conversation around the role of integrated standards where civics isn’t just a course, but something that is embedded into other core subjects. I was fortunate to see how this integration has worked well in schools within the Facing History and Ourselves and EL Education networks, where civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions show up in math, science, and English Language Arts lessons, too. My hope is state and school education leaders can learn from their approaches.

In addition, the CivXNow coalition has grown to include 250 organizations and 39 state-based coalitions working to advance civic learning locally and nationally. And in the last state legislature cycle, at least 14 states passed meaningful legislation to support more civic learning.

Given the positive momentum of high-quality models, recognized societal needs, and student/teacher readiness, now is the time to marshal the collective will to make civics accessible to all Americans. As Rajiv Vinnakota, President of the Institute of Citizens & Scholars and one of the More Perfect Universal Civics leaders reflected, the benefits of civic learning extend beyond student growth and development:

“If our work to develop more engaged citizens and bring them together in good faith succeeds then it's going to be more likely that today's communities and national problems are addressed sooner rather than later, that more bipartisan solutions are enacted, making it easier for all to participate, accelerating progress for all, and civil discourse improves, and our culture becomes more united.”

The More Perfect campaign is stitching together a broad network of organizations to advance five measurable democracy goals, including universal civic learning, by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To help the campaign achieve these goals, we need more bi-partisan advocacy to compel local, state, and federal policymakers to prioritize resources in order to support high-quality implementation of civic learning in our school systems and communities.

At Einhorn Collaborative, we are proud to partner with CivXNow nationally and DemocracyReady NY in our backyard as two interrelated efforts to elevate civics through advocacy, research, narrative change, and coalition building. I invite you to learn about the leaders of these efforts by going Through the Prism with Louise Dubé, Shawn Healy, and Michael Rebell.

I hope you will consider joining us on this journey by doing what you can to support civic learning throughout the country.