by Jane Robbins and Emmett McGroarty
This article was originally published on thepublicdiscorse.com on April 22, 2021.
Congress has a citizen problem. It repeatedly delegates responsibility to bureaucracies, without considering the consequences to the ordinary citizen. Then, when things go awry, it responds with more of the same.
The Civics Secures Democracy Act, which is being introduced in the House and Senate by Sens. Coons (D-DE) and Cornyn (R-TX) and Reps. DeLauro (D-CT), Cole (R-OK), and Blumenauer (D-OR), is a case in point. In response to the political violence that has beset us the last few years, this legislation proposes that we pour federal grant money into the states. It rests on the belief that Americans lack knowledge of basic facts about our history and government and that this ignorance contributes to political violence.
To be sure, cause for concern about the people’s knowledge of civics and history is well-founded. The most recent iteration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that only 24 percent of eighth graders were proficient in their knowledge of government, and only 15 percent were proficient in US history. Those findings are consistent with other reports on students and adults alike and are only more pronounced among younger generations.
But the federal government fails to realize the connection between its own policy of using federal funding to manipulate state and local policy and the civic alienation that it claims to deplore. Not surprisingly, as the size of federal grants to the states (and attendant policy-dictating strings) was increasing by more than ten-fold, adjusted for inflation, between 1960 and 2012 (see John DiIulio’s Bring Back the Bureaucrats), citizen trust in government was plummeting from 73 percent to the high teens, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. It is understandable that a citizen whose autonomy is increasingly usurped by distant and unaccountable federal officials will neither feel ownership in government nor see the importance of proficiency in civics. If federal money is calling the shots, why bother?
Against this background, the Civics Secures Democracy Act is confounding. The bill establishes yet another top-down system of massive grant programs shaped and administered by the federal bureaucracy. This will give the federal bureaucracy tremendous leverage to influence state and local decisions about civics education content and administration, thus making them less responsive to the people.
This is an anti-civics civics bill that will stoke the fires of discord and alienation.
The federal government fails to realize the connection between its own policy of using federal funding to manipulate state and local policy and the civic alienation that it claims to deplore…. This is an anti-civics civics bill that will stoke the fires of discord and alienation.
Teaching to the Test
The bill authorizes the Secretary of Education to make grants of $585 million per year to states “on a competitive basis,” giving the secretary leeway to set the particulars of the competition. As with past programs, this arrangement will weaken the integrity of state and local policymaking and bend it toward federal prescriptions. For example, the Race to the Top competition rewarded states for commitment to the Common Core, a controversial initiative with abysmal results (see here and here).
To apply for a grant, the bill requires a state to submit a history and civics plan describing how the funds will be used and how the state will hold local education agencies accountable for following the plan. Given its past practice, the bureaucracy will undoubtedly tie the federal money to a state’s overall history and civics plan and thus drive federal bureaucratic preferences into states and local communities. It will also likely resort to the 2009 Race to the Top/Common Core competition strategy of awarding maximum points to states that show that the federal preferences will be implemented—regardless of whether they actually win competition money.
Furthermore, grant renewals are to be based on the results of the NAEP surveys in history and civics. Although NAEP is a sampling rather than a full-blown standardized test, this still raises the danger of another teach-to-the-test environment that narrows curricula and deprives students of learning time in favor of test preparation. This defeats the purpose of encouraging increased instruction time.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspects of the bill are its themes of “service learning,” “student civic projects linked to classroom learning,” and “experiential learning” (learning through real-world experiences). This language invites—indeed, compels—schools to implement controversial “action civics.” This is a trendy education movement that, in addition to teaching students how their government works, seeks to “launch them into collective action on issues they care about.”
Action civics has been roundly criticized as depriving children of important instructional time and funneling them into political advocacy. This is a problem, especially given the overwhelming left-wing bent of the teaching profession. Similarly, as Stanley Kurtz points out, the bill’s encouragement of “media literacy” will likely be used to inculcate students in progressive, Big Tech positions on controversial issues.
The bill authorizes an additional $200 million per year for competitive grants to nonprofit organizations for “expanding access to evidence-based curricula, instructional models, and other educational programs.” Yet another provision authorizes $150 million per year to colleges and universities to, among other things, train “teachers in methods for instructing and engaging students in civics and history.” Again, this will empower the federal bureaucracy to pick winners and losers—the winners are guaranteed to be the already overwhelmingly leftist education colleges—and favor its preferred approaches and substance. Moreover, it’s worth noting that a community’s decision-making on uncontested terrain creates a foundation of trust on which it can solve more difficult, controversial matters. If there are to be grants of this type, the states should receive the money on a non-competitive basis and should themselves decide how to dole it out.
Congress and the judiciary excuse these types of manipulations by noting that the states could simply reject federal funding. As Chief Justice Roberts admonished in the NFIB v. Sebelius, “The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Sometimes they have to act like it.” However, this overlooks the mechanics of grants. In order to ram through policy-shaping programs, grants-in-aid to states interfere with the state decision-making process, enlisting the state bureaucracy as its agent-in-residence to lobby elected officials and local government and to manipulate the relationship between citizens and elected leaders. Indeed, as illustrated by the doleful history of Common Core, state bureaucracies could grab the “free” federal money and submit to the federal mandates without even notifying elected officials that they’re doing so. Regardless of judicial pronouncements, a decent respect for the Constitution and the people would oblige Congress to cease policy-dictating grants like those that would be authorized by the Civics Secures Democracy Act.
Forming Social Trust
Beyond these considerations, a more profound consideration mandates that Congress mend its ways. The bill fails to take into account why and how individuals and communities form social trust. When a community decision has to be made, people have an incentive to reach out to those beyond their usual circle, to understand their viewpoints, and to build consensus on a course of action. These interactions build mutual respect and understanding, often even in the absence of substantive agreement.
The potency of this dynamic decreases as decision-making is moved away from the people. In American government, the nadir occurs when Congress employs its favored, top-down strategy of grants and attached policy strings—the approach taken with the bill. This fuels what Richard Cornuelle described as the “systematic, irrational disconnection of ordinary people from the business of the society.” This, he argued, is “the real root cause of the evident loss of the feeling of cohesion and solidarity.”
Is it too much to ask that Congress at least not exacerbate the problems it created? If the Civics Secures Democracy Act is any indication, apparently so.