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.


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