Every few years, civics education goes from being an ignored issue in American politics to briefly being a low-key issue. This is one of those years—and understandably so: 2021 started with an insurrectionist mob attacking the U.S. Capitol, so it makes sense for the question of how we teach rising generations about our form of government to merit at least a little public attention.
Writing in the Atlantic over the weekend, Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, called for “making education for democracy a core element of higher education’s mission.” Our universities, Daniels wrote, “ought to be a bulwark” for our democracy, “bolstering a system of self-governance that is more fissured and fragile than at any time in decades.”
And Robert Gates—himself a former university administrator, as well as a former defense secretary and CIA director—told Politico last week that he worries about the “lack of understanding among school boards and others of the importance of civics education for the country as a whole.”
From the pushers of the 1619 Project on the left to the supporters of the 1776 Commission on the Trumpian right, there is widespread consensus that American civics education needs improvement, even if there is little agreement about just what improvement would entail.
As it happens, an obscure bill languishing in Congress seeks to address some of the problems with civics education. It is a sensible bill, and has attracted bipartisan support. But it has stalled—and the reasons it has stalled can tell us a great deal about the limits of bipartisanship in the Biden era.
The Civics Secures Democracy Act (CSDA) was introduced in March by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) in the Senate and by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Tom Cole (R-Ok.), and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in the House. The bill would appropriate a billion dollars for grants to states, localities, universities, and nonprofit organizations for the purposes of creating and administering civics curricula in schools and through extracurricular activities. (By way of disclosure: I participated in one such program during my senior year of high school, and the organization that ran it, the Tennessee YMCA Center for Civic Engagement, could be eligible to receive a grant if the bill passes.)
There are two things worth noticing about the bill’s list of sponsors. First, those original sponsors hail from both parties, and they each presumably have their own thoughts about the kind of ideological narrative that a civics curriculum ought to provide. Yet despite their differences, they all backed the bill.
Also note that those original cosponsors are influential members of each chamber. Cornyn spent most of the last decade as the number-two Republican in the Senate. Coons is close to President Biden. DeLauro, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is a powerful ally of Speaker Pelosi. Cole is the ranking member of the House Rules Committee. In addition, the Republicans who originally signed on to the bill (Cornyn and Cole) are not anti-Trump Republicans. Neither voted for Donald Trump’s impeachment or conviction either time; in fact, Cole joined those Republicans who voted against certifying the Pennsylvania and Arizona electoral votes following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
As a source close to the lobbying efforts for this bill confirmed for me, “You don’t get them”—DeLauro, Coons, Cornyn, and Cole—“unless there’s a possibility that the bill will pass.”
But then things broke down.
First, the bill was attacked from the right. Four days after DeLauro introduced the CSDA in the House, Stanley Kurtz, a conservative commentator who is perennially ringing alarm bells about the politicization by the left of American education, wrote for National Review that the fight over civics education would be “the greatest education battle of our lifetimes.”
Kurtz’s hyperbolic criticism of the CSDA was of a piece with his criticism of past efforts to revamp American civics education, in which he warned of far-left, anti-American, ultra-woke brainwashing. He wrote that Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Cole, the Republicans who cosponsored the CSDA, “have been hornswoggled and hogtied into backing legislation that is about as far from conservative as a bill could be.”
But Kurtz’s claims about CSDA were practically unfounded. Contra Kurtz, the bill does not explicitly require or implicitly suggest the implementation of a national curriculum for civics education. It does not mention the bogeymen Kurtz invokes, such as critical race theory and “Action Civics.” It does not require or even hint at the adoption of left-wing material in the classroom, or anything like the 1619 Project.
In short, Kurtz was crying wolf.
Until he wasn’t.
The CSDA is not the first bill of its kind. Earlier congressional actions created similar civics-education grant programs to be administered at the discretion of the Department of Education. Each new administration has different policy priorities that drive their competitive grant-making. New grant priorities are then proposed and adopted within the department to establish a written record of its new priorities for grant recipients.
In April, the Department of Education released new proposed grant priorities for an existing civics-education grant program. The introduction of the proposed priorities, released in the Federal Register, explicitly cited the 1619 Project and Ibram X Kendi’s “antiracism” teachings as examples of the types of curricula that grant-seekers should implement to receive priority in the grant evaluation process:
There is growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society. This acknowledgement is reflected, for example, in the New York Times’ landmark “1619 Project” and in the resources of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.
Accordingly, schools across the country are working to incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning. As the scholar Ibram X. Kendi has expressed, “[a]n antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.” It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students.
This language seemed to confirm the fears and critiques of right-wingers like Kurtz, that the Biden administration aims to use civics education as a mechanism to indoctrinate American students in progressive ideologies. Lobbyists began to meet resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill who had up to that point been considering signing on to or otherwise supporting the CSDA.
“It was sloppy,” said the source familiar with lobbying efforts for the bill. “It was an unforced error that fed directly into [right-wing] fear.”
Kurtz and others began pressuring Cole and Cornyn to revoke their support for the bill, and Cole in turn took the heat to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, pushing him to withdraw the proposed grant priorities. Other congressional Republicans took notice; 39 Republican senators, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, sent a letter to Cardona calling on him to withdraw the proposal.
Cardona did eventually revise the grant priorities: When the actual invitation for applications was released in July, it included no references to slavery or the 1619 Project or Ibram X. Kendi.
But the damage was already done. The CSDA, which previously had been largely received as a balanced, bipartisan solution to a serious problem (the need for better civics education), was now a “Trojan horse” for left-wing extremism. The Biden administration walked right into critiques about its progressive direction and lack of practical commitment to bipartisanship.
How did this happen? Who is responsible for the ill-advised grant priority proposal that any political centrist could have warned would create a ruckus?
The answer lies in executive branch process wonkery.
Support for the controversial language about the 1619 Project and Kendi in the Education Department proposal could have come from the top down or from the bottom up. In other words, it’s possible that the Biden White House’s Domestic Policy Council or Secretary Cardona himself expressed favor for these more progressive civics programs and directed that they be included in the grant priorities. It seems more likely, though, that the low-level staffers tasked with drafting the proposal were proponents of these programs—but higher-ranking department officials would almost certainly have had to review the proposal before it was made public, meaning that at least some of the most powerful officials in the Department of Education, if not Secretary Cardona himself, were pushing the department in a more progressive direction.
Still, whether the cause was sloppiness, an idealistic young staffer, or an attempt to push an under-the-radar progressive agenda, the disturbing lesson of this case is that incautious or imprudent executive-branch policy proposals can jeopardize substantive, bipartisan legislative wins.
Shawn Healy, senior director for state policy and advocacy at CivXNow, a group advocating the passage of CSDA, acknowledged that many questions beyond the proposed grant priorities have come up in meetings with congressional Republicans, including Kurtz-like concerns about a national curriculum and the bill’s pay-fors.
“In our outreach to members’ offices [over the Department of Education’s proposed civics grant priorities] we heard this in a couple of cases. It certainly was an issue, right?” said Healy.
The CSDA bill “was artificially tethered to that controversy,” Healy said. “It’s been a political challenge for sure.”
“I think what we don’t know is if the damage is too much,” said the source close to lobbying efforts for the bill.
In the months since the controversial proposed grant priorities came to light, one Republican representative—Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania—signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. On its own, the addition of this one further GOP cosponsor provides little reason to think that the CSDA might get legislatively unstuck. But it does at least provide a glimmer of hope for a renewed bipartisan push for a civics education bill in a year desperately calling out for one.