Published July 7, 2022
The silence of Republican office-holders on the Civics Secures Democracy Act (CSDA) — a bill that would push critical race theory (CRT) on every public school in the country — has just been broken by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Late last week, DeSantis exposed this supposed federal “civics” bill for what it is: an opportunity for Biden’s education bureaucrats to fill students’ heads with CRT.
Seduced by the lure of what they think is good old-fashioned “civics,” three naïve Republican senators — John Cornyn, Bill Cassidy, and James Inhofe — have signed onto CSDA as co-sponsors. Maybe that’s why Republicans on the Hill have been reluctant to openly criticize this “bipartisan” legislation. Now, however, public opposition from so prominent a Republican office-holder as Ron DeSantis may break the logjam and shift momentum against this dangerous bill.
Last year, DeSantis made a major update to Florida’s civics standards. As revised by DeSantis, Florida’s standards now highlight the benefits of the free market and of America’s constitutional system, while explicitly comparing the advantages of America’s institutions to socialist, communist, and authoritarian regimes. That is not how America’s left-dominated education establishment does civics. Yet it’s exactly what parents in many states want.
Nothing threatens a state’s ability to go this traditional route more than federal grants administered by Biden’s pro-CRT Department of Education. Yet that is what CSDA is. The Civics Secures Democracy Act is a series of baited hooks — civics grants with strings attached by Biden’s leftist bureaucrats. On top of that, CSDA’s state grants are tied to student performance on a national test, which gives the designers of the federal test (who are chosen by Biden) de facto control over state standards and curricula.
Understanding this, last week DeSantis slammed the Civics Secures Democracy Act for trying to “buy off states with $6 billion if they sacrifice American History for Critical Race Theory and Biden’s other political whims of the day.” It’s easy to see why DeSantis accused Biden of planning to use CSDA’s fat grants to “indoctrinate” students with CRT. Last year, at around the same time DeSantis was releasing his revisions to Florida’s civics standards, the Biden administration published a rule assigning priority to history and civics grants that follow in the footsteps of CRT theorist Ibram X. Kendi and the infamous 1619 Project.
This is how we got Common Core. Obama stuffed a lavishly funded federal grant program called Race to the Top into his 2009 stimulus bill. No one noticed at the time, but those grants soon transformed American education by stripping the states of their curricular autonomy. Obama made acceptance of Common Core a condition of applying for Race to the Top money. Cash-strapped states quickly complied, thereby sacrificing the lion’s share of control over their own curricular content. CSDA works the same way. To get the latest tranche of fat federal education grants, states will have to please bureaucrats who we already know — from Biden’s 2021 rule and a series of other signals — strongly favor CRT.
Don’t underestimate how difficult it is for a governor to say no to a bill filled with federal grants for states. Remember, 48 states promised to adopt Common Core — many of them before they even knew what was in it — just to get those big federal bucks. Texas governor Rick Perry took a lot of heat from Democrats and the press at the time for turning down Obama’s stimulus money. Perry used to say, “The academic standards of Texas are not for sale.” DeSantis’s rejection of Biden’s attempt to “buy off states with $6 billion dollars if they sacrifice American History for Critical Race Theory” is in the same vein. So far, DeSantis is the first and only governor to take that bold stand on CSDA. Sadly, this kind of independent stance is rare.
DeSantis hit back at CSDA at an event announcing the results of Florida’s 2022 civics assessments. In general, Florida students this year scored better on civics tests than they had the year before. The improvement rates for all minority students were especially impressive. African-American students in particular had the highest rate of improvement, which means that the civics “achievement gap” between white and African-American students has narrowed significantly.
You might think this would give Florida the inside track for federal grants under CSDA. After all, the bill instructs the secretary of Education to give priority to proposals with the greatest prospects of helping “underserved” students narrow civics achievement gaps. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Under the theory favored by the left-dominated education establishment, the best way to help poor, minority, and recent immigrant students (the “underserved”) is to abandon traditional approaches to American history and civics, while substituting CRT-style curricula instead. No matter how good DeSantis’s results, Biden’s bureaucrats would have the power under CSDA to define what truly benefits the “underserved.” And time and again we’ve seen that Biden’s Education Department goes the CRT route — all the while fighting DeSantis-style attempts to revitalize traditional history and civics.
With Biden in control of a federal civics test tied to eligibility for state grants, it’s tough to see how governors in search of federal funds will be able to conduct meaningful state assessments of civics, especially if they adopt more traditional standards, on the Florida model. Schools “teach to the test.” But will they be teaching to a statewide test tied to distinctive state standards, or to a federal test tied to Biden’s leftist vision of civics and history? CSDA will make the federal test all powerful, a backdoor route to de facto federal control over state standards and curriculum.
The fight over CSDA is also a window onto the struggle to define the Republican Party. Two of the bill’s Republican co-sponsors have led pushes for bipartisan legislation, Cornyn on guns and Cassidy on infrastructure. (NR’s Editors opposed both of those bills.) On the other side, so far only former President Trump, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and now Governor DeSantis have publicly opposed the Civics Secures Democracy Act. (For Trump’s remarks on CSDA, see 1:26-1:33 of this speech.) The latter three are probably the savviest, most influential, and most effective Republicans when it comes to fighting the good fight on cultural issues. Which way will the party go? Above all, will congressional Republicans have the gumption to publicly break with their credulous colleagues by openly criticizing CSDA?
Cornyn and Cassidy have fallen into the Democrats’ trap and opened the door to the nationalization of CRT, all in pursuit of a bogus bipartisanship. At the very moment when conservatives have a fighting chance to take back the culture — or at least to carve out a cultural redoubt of our own — a few naïve senators are on the verge of handing our schools over to the Left. Should CSDA become law, whether Republicans take Congress in 2022 or not, Biden will have de facto control of America’s education system until the end of his term. This is madness, and political suicide, too. What will happen when the Republican base wakes up to find that our own senators have delivered America’s schools into the hands of CRT propagandists?
Ron DeSantis is willing to fight the cultural fight, and smart enough to know how the game is played. He is leading on civics, and on many other cultural issues as well. Kudos to him for taking on the fake federal civics bill. Let’s hope more Republicans follow his lead.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).