Responding to Defenders of the Federal Civics Bill

Published August 1, 2022

National Review Online

Last Friday, Former Nebraska Republican senator and Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former Alabama Democratic senator Doug Jones published a piece laying out three key defenses of the federal Civics Secures Democracy Act. Here is why those defenses don’t hold up.

First, Hagel and Jones point to the following passage:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the Secretary of Education to prescribe a civics and history curriculum.” According to Hagel and Jones, this passage “forbids the imposition of any national curriculum and leaves decisions about what is taught and how it is taught to states and local school districts.

That is both mistaken and misleading. That passage clearly does not “forbid” anything. Instead, it simply disclaims any intention to “authorize” a federally prescribed curriculum. More important, what critics like myself warn of is not the formal legal imposition of a curriculum. Rather, our concern is that the lure of federal grants will induce states and school districts to “voluntarily” adopt the sort of leftist curricula sure to be favored by Biden’s education bureaucrats when they decide which states, nonprofit organizations, universities, and researchers will receive federal civics grants.

The exact same disclaimer of intent to legally prescribe a federal curriculum was in place when the Obama administration used Race to the Top grants to induce 48 states to adopt Common Core. Based on that experience, the passage cited by Hagel and Jones will accomplish nothing of significance. Sadly, provisions like this are regularly inserted into bills that tend to expand federal control of education, housing, and other areas. They are designed to neutralize political opposition, while doing nothing in practice to hold back federal control. Note also that I and other critics have made this point repeatedly, yet Hagel and Jones do not address it. It’s apparent that they do not wish to meet the other side’s arguments directly.

Second, Hagel and Jones say that grants to states under the bill are based on neutral “formulas.” The implication is that Biden’s secretary of education will have no discretion to decide whether a given state receives a grant. The bill, however, says otherwise. True, once a state receives a grant, the amount of money involved will be determined by an automatic formula taking into account factors such as population and economic conditions. Nevertheless, the bill gives Biden’s secretary of education the authority to decide whether a given state gets a federal grant in the first place.

The bill says that the secretary of education “shall prioritize” the award of grants to eligible entities that “demonstrate the greatest potential to” improve knowledge among the “traditionally underserved,” that “close gaps in civic knowledge and achievement among traditionally underserved students,” and that “improve performance” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP test — the “nation’s report card”).

Clearly, Secretary Miguel Cardona is given discretion here to approve or disapprove grants based on his assessment of the potential grantees’ ability to achieve the itemized criteria. The bill also says that the secretary “is authorized to make grants to each State that has an approved application.” In other words, the secretary has discretion to approve or disapprove an application. Moreover, the applications themselves are required to lay out plans for improving performance among the “underserved” as measured by the NAEP test. The only reason to require such plans is to give the secretary some basis for approving or rejecting an application, given the priority criteria built into the bill. So the automatic formula for distributing grant money to a given state doesn’t kick in until the secretary has first decided whether a state’s application is good enough to win a grant in the first place.

A term such as “underserved” may not mean much to the uninitiated. As I’ve explained at some length, however, “underserved” means something surprising and specific to today’s predominantly progressive civics-education community. The term “underserved” is generally used to designate the poor, minorities, and recent immigrants. Most readers will simply assume from this that the bill is about getting extra money to financially strapped school districts with large numbers of minorities and immigrants.

In the eyes of the education Left, however, the only way to eliminate civics “achievement gaps” between underserved minority students and others is to revolutionize civics education itself. Progressive educators believe that only curricula based on critical race theory (CRT) and “action civics” (required political protests for civics courses) can truly appeal to the underserved. And crucially, under this bill the Biden administration has the latitude to favor civics proposals that try to reach the “underserved” via CRT and action civics. We already know, in fact, that Biden’s Education Department favors this approach.

The third point made by Hagel and Jones is that changes to the NAEP test will not be used as a backdoor way of pressing a de facto national curriculum on the states. According to Hagel and Jones, “the grants are not tied to performance” [on the NAEP test]. This claim is simply not consistent with the language of the bill.

The bill requires states applying to renew their grants to submit “an evaluation of the effectiveness of the activities carried out using the previous grant, which shall be based on the results of the most recent [NAEP] assessment in civics and history.” Clearly, in direct opposition to Hagel and Jones, grant renewals are tied to a state’s performance on NAEP. Why would grant-renewal applications have to “evaluate the effectiveness” of past performance via NAEP, if not to allow the secretary to decide whether that state deserves a renewal, given those results?

We know that the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) coalition aspires to “align” the NAEP test with its own vision of American history and civics — a vision roundly criticized by a host of conservatives. Should Biden align NAEP to the vision of its leftist allies in EAD, this bill could easily turn NAEP into a backdoor path to a national curriculum.

Once it was announced that NAEP had been aligned to EAD, teachers everywhere would rush to adopt curriculum modules approved by the Left-dominated EAD coalition. The same thing happened with Common Core–aligned curricula. Understanding that the renewal of their federal grants hinges on student performance on NAEP, even red states would be under immense pressure to accept the EAD approach. Again, this would not be a formal federal mandate. Yet it would nationalize EAD in practice — just like Common Core.

In short, the reassurances of Hagel and Jones are false. The wording of the current version of the Civics Secures Democracy Act has been tweaked a bit, yet the substance remains the same. Given Biden’s administrative leverage, this bill lays down a path to a leftist takeover of America’s history and civics curricula. It should be defeated.

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).

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates 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 has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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