Strides in Civics Education Reform

Summer 2021 Update

David Randall

Only in the last months have civics reformers begun to fight back against action civics and Critical Race Theory. The Civics Alliance was founded just this March. Now we have reached August, when most state legislatures are out of session, and even the U.S. Congress moves more slowly. It’s time for a progress report. How have reform bills fared? How have reformers succeeded by means other than state laws?

I’ll also mention how recent efforts to impose action civics, radical identity politics, and CRT by statute have progressed. The radical establishment will push ahead with or without authorizing laws to impose action civics and CRT, unless reformers pass laws to restrain them.

Texas led the nation by passing HB 3979, whose language draws on the National Association of Scholars’ model Partisanship Out of Civics Act (POCA). The bill bars both action civics and the core tenets of Critical Race Theory from public K-12 schools. Opponents inserted several poison pill amendments to weaken the bill, so a special session of the Texas Legislature is considering reforms to the new law. The best of these, HB 178, would remove the poison pill amendments—and add an academic transparency requirement to public K-12 schools, forcing them to reveal all trainings and other materials they impose on their staff and students. Other proposals would weaken HB 3979. We cannot yet determine the outcome, but HB 3979 is law, and proves that POCA language can pass into law.

Already other states have followed suit: recently legislators in Ohio and South Carolina introduced bills modeled on POCA.

Several other states have passed laws to bar Critical Race Theory and other “discriminatory concepts.” These include Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Of these, Oklahoma has followed up with rules by its Board of Education to put its anti-CRT law into effect. Oklahoma provides a model of administrative follow-through. Laws to restrict CRT are necessary, but they are not sufficient by themselves.

South Dakota legislators, meanwhile, showed imagination and initiative by finding a different way to bar CRT. The South Dakota Joint Committee of Appropriations passed a resolution and letter of intent, directed to the state Education Department, advising them not to apply for history or civics grants from the U.S. Education Department until the state legislature can examine the implications of the Department’s announced 1619 Project/“anti-racism” priorities. This scrutiny has paid off, as the U.S. State Department recently removed references to the 1619 Project and Ibram Kendi from its grant requirements. This action is a model for state legislators who face an impending end of their session and are not able to hold hearings or pass legislation.

State legislators have company among the state attorney generals in their good work to ban CRT. Twenty state attorneys general have written the U.S. Education Department to express their opposition to Critical Race Theory. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen issued an Attorney General’s Opinion, holding the use of “Critical Race Theory” and so-called “antiracism” programming in many instances is discriminatory and violates federal and state law. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has published a Parents Bill of Rights (PBOR). The PBOR doesn’t itself ban Action Civics or Critical Race Theory, but it informs parents about the actual Indiana law—what the state really mandates in its schools, and how parents can work to prevent local school districts from forcing Action Civics or Critical Race Theory on students, teachers, or staff.

State school boards have also done good work to rid their schools of CRT. The Alabama State School Board has joined its Georgia peer in issuing a statement that schools should not use Critical Race Theory. So has the Florida State School Board.

Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia passed laws to strengthen instruction in such areas as patriotism, the Founding Documents, and the horrors of Communism. Although these laws would have been strengthened by explicit bars of action civics, they are welcome in themselves and as signs of the broad and intensifying appetite by the American public for laws that will strengthen civics education.

Florida, Oklahoma, and Utah added laws to establish, strengthen, or amend a civics literacy assessment in public high schools.

Some states also strengthened their civics requirements in higher education. Florida tied its K-12 civics literacy assessment to an assessment for college students and an undergraduate civic literacy course, and it added intellectual diversity protections to public colleges and universities. South Carolina added an undergraduate American History and Government general education requirement. Utah created a university center devoted to nonpartisan study, implicitly modeled on Arizona's School of Economic Thought and Leadership.

Among the governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida has used the bully pulpit most effectively to oppose CRT. Kristi Noem of South Dakota took 1776 Action’s anti-CRT pledge, and thereby gave it useful publicity.

At the federal level, representatives have submitted a spate of bills to express their opposition to CRT, including House Bill 397, House Bill 3137, House Bill 3157. Several senators, notably Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have also introduced bills to express their opposition to CRT. Federal legislation cannot proceed until the political constellation changes, but these are useful markers of intent and ways to rally public opinion.

Civics reformers around the nation have begun to flip school boards. Perhaps just as important, groups are forming to provide practical help for the grassroots. The 1776 Project PAC has just been formed, dedicated to funding candidates for school board elections who will remove Critical Race Theory from the schools. Other groups are providing practical advice on how school board candidates should run an election and how to work effectively in office.

The current education establishment has also achieved a variety of victories, which provide a map of their priorities. Most straightforwardly, Rhode Island imposed an action civics requirement on its students—and Florida would have funded an action civics program, if not for a last-minute veto by Governor Ron DeSantis. Oregon added a semester’s civics requirement, which will allow the education establishment to require action civics. Oregon also followed up on its previous mandate of a loosely worded Holocaust and Genocide instruction mandate by a law incorporating this instruction into its history and civics curriculum.

Colorado recently passed a media literacy law. These laws exist to “educate” students to trust the approved mainstream media and to ignore outlets and stories that are not left or left-of-center. Media literacy lessons frequently incorporate the action civics model, requiring social media activism projects.

A new tactic of the action civics lobby is to give students an excused day from school for “civic engagement activities”—in other words, a free day, at taxpayer expense, to engage in protest. Delaware and Virginia both passed such laws. Civics reformers should be prepared for more such laws to be proposed in a great many states.

Another favored tactic is to establish state commissions, which will in turn recommend action civics curriculum and mandates. Indiana established a Civics Education commission composed of many action civics advocates; we may expect the commission soon enough to recommend the usual array of curriculum changes. Similarly, New Jersey delegated the creation of its civics curriculum to the New Jersey Center for Civic Education, another purveyor of action civics.

Yet another tactic is to pass laws inserting ambiguous words, without definition, into state law. Nevada now requires students (public and home school) to learn both “civics” and “multicultural education.” We may expect this law to be used as a wedge for a combination of action civics and radical identity politics propaganda.

Radical activists support identity politics by an ever-lengthening series of mandates to study the history of favored identity groups. So Illinois passed a law requiring Asian American history.

Illinois also passed a law strengthening civics education for juvenile prisoners. Teaching protest civics to prisoners could have unintended consequences—but it is not clear that a curriculum of protest civics was the intention of the legislature. Still, it is worth keeping an eye on developments in the state.

Colorado passed into law a compromise that strengthens instruction in the Founding Documents while permitting or strengthening Colorado’s action civics mandate. North Dakota likewise established a scholarship for students who score well on a civic literacy assessment—and who engage in “community service” and “co-curricular” activities. These compromise laws are cause for both frustration and cautious hope. On the one hand, to permit action civics gives the radical education establishment license to hollow out civics education. And on the other hand, to strengthen education in the Founding Documents indicates that the radical advocates must still consider the views of the broad American middle, both their patriotic sentiments and their sensible education instincts.

Civics reformers may take cheer from these concessions, which indicate the long-term weakness of the action civics and CRT lobbies.

Civics reformers have achieved notable victories in the first months of their active campaign to eliminate action civics and CRT from our schools. They have made notable progress in 18 states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Much remains to be done, but this is extraordinary progress for a movement still in its first year.

What precisely should be done? The National Association of Scholars and the Civics Alliance have provided resources to inform further civics reform work, including a Model K-12 Civics Code, Higher Education Civics Priorities, a Civics Bill Tracker, Grassroots Resources, and Pledges for Voters, School Board Candidates, and State Elected Official Candidates. We believe these will help give substance to the next year of work to roll back action civics and CRT. But new tactics will emerge in each school district and state. We will publicize whatever works.

The early successes of civics reformers will provide a wonderful base for our efforts in the year to come. The battle is only beginning.

David Randall is the director of research at the National Association of Scholars

Photo by Dale Honeycutt on Unsplash

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