Memorandum to the Incoming Biden Administration
December 9, 2020
TO: President-Elect Biden’s Transition Team
FROM: 50X2026 Civics Education Team
SUBJECT: Prioritizing Civics Education in a new Administration
A Civics Crisis
Americans, in substantial measure, do not trust our government. Our system has not realized its potential to facilitate an inclusive society for all of us. Our nation is reeling from multiple challenges: COVID-19 and the ensuing public health crisis; an economic crisis hitting all communities, particularly those of color, and a reckoning of structural racism, whose manifestations are particularly apparent in how policing happens in our country. These interrelated challenges are decades, if not centuries in the making, and will not be undone overnight.
Compounding these challenges is an underlying civic crisis: many Americans don’t understand how our government works; those who do, don’t necessarily participate. This starts in our education system. Due to the marginalization of social studies over the last few decades, civics itself has been deprioritized in favor of other subjects. To strengthen our democracy and address our common challenges, we must begin with a renewal of our civic traditions, a commitment to tackle old problems with fresh resolve, a willingness to undertake bold action with what John Dewey called a common faith: democracy is possible if we work for it. For reasons of civic formation and aspiring towards universal reach, this work must start with our schools, with culture and systems change around how we do education in this country.
A Solution — Civics Education
Civics education is not a silver bullet, but it’s a crucial part of the solution, along with removing barriers to civic participation, for strengthening our democracy. To bolster our democracy, we need to undo the civic learning hierarchies that have given some communities comprehensive democracy education; others a less robust civics, if any; and none of us an equity-rooted civics capable of realizing the promise of our democracy’s potential, together. In this moment, we have witnessed young people protesting and advocating for change and a better democracy. This prompts the question: what would our democracy look like if all young people had access to a robust civics education that centers the lived experiences of a diverse student population and prioritized civic knowledge and skill development in a non-punitive, democratic learning environment?
We are proposing to emphasize civics education through a variety of federal and congressional avenues.
- Pass the Educating for Democracy Act: First, we propose working with Congress to introduce and pass legislation to significantly expand support and funding for civics education efforts. This bill would follow the Educating for Democracy Act’s framework, recently introduced with bipartisan support from Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, along with support in the Senate from Sens. Chris Coons and John Cornyn. The bill would appropriate $1 billion for civics and social studies related efforts.
The bulk of this funding would support three types of competitive grants, with a focus on districts and providers serving traditionally underserved rural and urban students. This follows much of what is stated in the Educating for Democracy Act:
- State funding, with most going to districts to aid their civics education programs.
- Nonprofits that provide curriculum and training for civics;
- Higher education-based teacher-preparation programs.
- ESSA Reauthorization: Additionally, we ask the incoming Biden Administration to work with Congress to prioritize civic readiness in ESSA Reauthorization. The Every Student Success Act (ESSA), which sets the agenda for education policy, will be up for reauthorization during the next presidential administration, after the 2020–21 school year. In concert with Congress, the next administration should use this opportunity to require states to present plans on civic readiness for review by the U.S. Department of Education. As New York State has shown, including civic readiness within a federally reviewed state plan brings the double advantage of providing a model for other states to consider while ensuring that students within a state receive comprehensive civics education.
In addition to this Congressional action, we are recommending the following policy reforms at the federal level:
- Centering Civic Readiness as a Core Value The mission of the U.S. Department of Education should include civic readiness as a measure of global competitiveness, placing it alongside educational excellence and ensuring equal access;
- Measuring the Right Data. We need to dramatically increase the level of data recorded for history and civics. We need to know, for example: how many minutes of instruction are spent on K-12 history and civics instruction and the level of preparation of educators, as well as how equitable are the opportunities for civic achievement and opportunities for practice.
- Promoting a School to Public Square Pipeline. The next administration should address civic disjuncture for all students by fostering school climate reform. Restoring the Department of Education’s prior guidance for states, districts, and schools on proven disciplinary strategies of classroom management, as articulated in the Rethink Discipline initiative, is an excellent, common-sense approach to advance social-emotional learning and educational environments conducive for democracy education.
- Taking Collective Action. The federal government should seek the establishment of a White House civics education task force comprised of national civil society groups with responsibility for education services, experts in civics and policy to align their influence and networks around promoting civic learning on an ongoing basis. This group should meet regularly and agree on collective actions to prioritize.
- Promote Competition, Transparency, and Accountability: The Department of Education should task a group of experts to develop a Civic Equity and Excellence rubric and require the publication of civic learning progress against that rubric by states. These measures must include student achievement, equity measures, educator preparation, and real-world civic engagement opportunities.
- Enable Our Educators to Succeed. Performance of educator preparation and practice in history and civics, including the field’s diversification, must be dramatically improved. The U.S. DOE should award a grant to develop an educator competency rubric and certification program that would ensure that educators are supported in developing the skills required to teach history and civics and recognized for this achievement.
- Establish an Inclusive Civics Partnership Between K-12 and Higher Education. The Department of Education should revive its K-12 and higher education partnership. This could entail encouraging and allocating resources to incentivize institutions of higher education — including HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions — to organize state-based convenings on civics education; and to identify and articulate pathways to scale up best practices for advancing racial equity among state superintendents, chief state school officers, and district leaders.
While some of these policy changes will have shorter-term results, others will have a longer-term impact on strengthening the country and building trust in our government. If we are to come together as a country today, we must make sure we are making the right long-term policy decisions that will put us on a path to ensure that those who come after us are engaging with one another in the public square and equipped with the skills to continue strengthening the country for those who come after them.
Launched by Generation Citizen in October 2020, 50x2026 is a campaign to address the decades-long decline in trust in government and increasing polarization in our country by renewing our nation’s commitment to civics education. It is a nationwide, non-partisan campaign to ensure future generations of Americans are equipped to be informed, active, and engaged citizens by bringing 21st-century civics education to schools across the nation.
The campaign includes a policy agenda for local, state, and federal action to ensure every young person in the country has access to hands-on, democracy education. 50x2026 builds on the work of states such as Illinois, Florida, and Massachusetts, Utah, which have passed requirements for civic education and offered state-wide curriculum recommendations. The initiative brings together philanthropic, educational, corporate, government and civic organizations and individuals, including a set of leading coalition partners and an advisory council. More information can be found at http://www.50x2026.org.