Federal Support for Civic Learning: A National Policy Update

by Shawn Healy, Resident Scholar and Director of Professional Development


As we enter the holiday season, Washington has provided the national civic learning community with little reason for cheer.


During a time of severe fiscal constraints, coupled with a decade-long standardized testing craze and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the social studies survive in a wounded state, and the health of our democracy is subsequently imperiled by a citizenry lacking the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes for informed and effective participation. Current developments in Washington warrant cautious optimism, as the social studies vie for their former seat at the core curriculum table.


The federal government has a role to play in supporting teacher professional development and innovative instruction, not to mention addressing inequalities in civic learning opportunities based on demographics alone. However, after eliminating all federal funding for civics in 2011, and cutting back on Teach American History grants, the federal government spent $2.44 per K-12 student on history in the U.S. This compares with $25.64 for literacy and $19.45 for science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM).


From this vacuum has flown the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Learning Act of 2011 (HR 3464). Introduced in the House by Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK) and Mike Honda (D-CA), it would restore funding for civic learning, replacing a former earmark with $30 million of competitive grants. Since its inception, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, mandating testing in reading, math and science, and marginalizing the social studies and other subjects that collectively constitute a “well-rounded” education. NCLB’s authorization expired in 2007. While funding has remained, its reauthorization is under consideration in both houses of Congress.


The Senate version, Harkin-Enzi bill, includes bipartisan support for a well-rounded education. It authorizes the Secretary of Education to provide grants to state educational agencies to support teacher and curriculum development in the social studies, civics included. Similar to the O’Connor Civic Learning Act, Harkin-Enzi also provides funding for competitive grants to nonprofit agencies to support civic learning opportunities that are innovative, equitable and scalable. While federal policies are among the causes of the current predicament, the Harkin-Enzi version of NCLB’s reauthorization, working in tandem with the O’Connor Civic Learning Act, represent a renewed federal commitment to civic learning and New Year’s resolutions we can all get behind.

Illinois' Continued Commitment & Vision for a Robust Early Education System

by Sara Slaughter, Education Program Director


Today, Illinois and its many public and private sector leaders in the early learning field have reason to reflect on the saying, "it is not the destination but the journey." Although Illinois – a long-time, national role model for its early education system – was not selected by the U.S. Department of Education as a winner of the Early Learning Challenge Fund competition, Illinois is to be commended for its participation in this national competition. The path for this competition – a process with an aggressive timeline and a demanding application – gave birth to new ideas, many of which will benefit young children in Illinois for generations to come. While not a recipient of the federal funds announced today, Illinois can stand tall and take pride in its many significant milestones it has achieved on its way to being recognized as one of the best early education systems in the United States:
  • First state to establish a statutory set-aside to fund services in the critical first three years of a child's life, irrevocably attaching the hard science of brain development to the State’s policy for education funding (1997)*;
  • First state to pass legislation which authorized universal high-quality preschool for both three and four year olds (2006)*;
  • First state to extend its definition of "children of limited English-speaking ability" to include 3- and 4-year olds participating in state-funded preschool programs, thereby requiring school districts to provide them bilingual education services (2009)*; and
  • One of only a few states that has defined its principal certification as Preschool to grade 12, requiring principal candidates to receive training specifically in early learning and child development*

And the benefits of the process do not end with new ideas alone. This path also forged new partnerships and re-kindled old ones. At a time when news stories are often saturated with conflicts and partisan bickering, this process resulted in both public sector and private sector leaders in Illinois coming together for countless productive discussions around how to refine a vision  for a better early care and education system for our most vulnerable young children. So in the spirit of "the glass is half full," we applaud Illinois and all those who participated in this process for daring to plan for the world class early education system we want – and need – for our youngest children.


We invite you to learn more about the Early Learning Challenge Fund through the resources from our colleagues at the First Five Years Fund and watch the Foundation’s site or more information about the positive changes in store for Illinois:

Related Links:
 First Five Years Fund Early Learning Challenge Communications toolkit.
Summary of the RTT-ELC application requirements.
Visit the U.S. Department of Education's RTT-ELC page.
*State of Illinois: Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge Grant Application

PBS "Newshour" Reports on News Literacy Project

by David Hiller, President & CEO


PBS Newshour aired an excellent piece last evening on one of our grantees, the News Literacy Project (NLP). NLP helps kids in middle schools and high schools become smart consumers of news and information—and distinguish fact from fiction, news from noise, in all the media they are deluged with every day. Knowing who and what to believe can be a real challenge, particularly for young people. So NLP mobilizes seasoned journalists to help students develop critical thinking skills.


Over the past three years, we’ve worked with Alan Miller, NLP’s founder, to bring the program to Chicago area schools. NLP is currently in ten middle and high schools and partners with 17 community organizations in Chicago, reaching nearly 1,500 kids. Nationally, in 2011, NLP has worked with 25 teachers in four cities to reach more than 2,000 students. If you missed the Newshour segment, which was titled News Literacy Project Training Young People To Be Skeptical Media Consumers, check it out.


If you’re interested in knowing more about news literacy, or sharing your views on the topic, you can find additional information on our website.