Ethics & Public Policy Center

How Dems Will Push Protest Civics and CRT on Schools

Published in National Review Online on June 1, 2021


The national rebellion against Critical Race Theory, leftist indoctrination, and enforced political activism in our schools grows larger every day. Sadly, the current assault on K-12 is but a foretaste of what is to come. President Biden and congressional Democrats are pulling out the stops to force Critical Race Theory (CRT) and “action civics” (better called “protest civics,” because it trains students to be leftist protesters) onto every school in the country.

The Democrats’ strategy mimics Obama’s imposition of Common Core. The feds will dangle massive education grants before the states, attaching strings that force the new protest civics and CRT onto schools. Biden has already issued priority criteria for awarding history and civics grants. Those criteria hold up the 1619 Project and CRT as models of what to support. Biden is also encouraging schools receiving federal COVID-19 relief funds to conduct “antiracist” (i.e., racist) “therapy” for teachers afflicted by “Whiteness.” The fast-multiplying civics bills currently circulating in Congress include priority criteria that give the inside track to grants that support after-school protest civics. Much of what Democrats now mean by “civics” is a world away from traditional lessons about the three branches of government, principles of federalism, and such. Nowadays, what Democrats call “civics” is designed to train up a generation of Greta Thunbergs.

The injection of leftist politics into education grants has become so obvious that backers of the big Civics Secures Democracy Act have been thrown onto the defensive. Yet, the fate of that bill may not be decisive. In an attempted end run around the controversy over the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a couple of new “civics” bills have just been introduced. There are now four bills designed to vastly expand federal funding for civics. These bills may look harmless, but especially as administered by Biden’s appointees, they will fund compulsory after-school protesting, along with CRT indoctrination. They are more like anti-civics bills than support for traditional civic education.

Unless Republicans on the Hill begin to track and publicly attack these fast-multiplying bills, one or more will get through. That would radically reshape the educational and political playing field. Instead of battles over far-left curricula in a subset of schools, entire states will be plunged into conflict over therapy to mitigate “Whiteness,” and over school-sponsored political protesting by students.

Enforced leftist indoctrination and political activism in the schools has swiftly moved education from a third-tier to a first-tier issue. It’s impossible to go to a conservative website or media outlet without encountering stories on CRT and related issues. If the politicization of K-12 has moved to the cultural forefront, however, Republicans in Congress do not yet recognize either the depth of the policy threat or the tremendous political significance of this battle.

True, to his great credit, Leader McConnell sent a letter signed by 38 other Republican senators to Biden Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging him to withdraw his proposed priorities for federal grants in civics and history. Yet barely a word has been spoken by Capitol Hill Republicans against the several pieces of legislation designed to provide Biden and Cardona with the money they need to impose their jaundiced priorities on America’s schools. These funding bills will weaponize the Biden administration’s intent to force protest civics and CRT on the states. Without that grant money, Biden cannot impose his troubling education priorities. With the money provided by these bills, however, Biden can take over our schools.

It is decidedly in the Republicans’ interest to turn these bogus “civics” bills into a major issue. The determination of the Democrats to force politicized “civics” and CRT on the country is now obvious. The existence of multiple civics bills makes it clear that so long as the Democrats run Congress, they will stop at nothing to force a new Common Core on the country — this one built around CRT and political-protest. Republicans ought to be making that case to the public.

What’s stopping them is partly a failure to recognize the growing grassroots concerns over politicized education. But there is more at work. The Civics Secures Democracy Act has Republican buy-in from Texas Senator John Cornyn and Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole. Cornyn and Cole can be forgiven for signing onto that bill before the true nature of protest civics was widely known. Now that they’ve been informed, however, and now that the Biden administration is explicitly supporting the wave of Critical Race Theory washing over America’s schools, it is past time for Cornyn and Cole to remove themselves from this massive federal bill. As of now, I’m sorry to say, neither Cornyn nor Cole is budging. Cornyn is even defending his bill with statements that are patently false.

This buy-in by a handful of Republicans, some of whom still don’t even know what modern protest civics is, helps account for the silence of the GOP on these dangerous so-called “civics” bills. Both of the new civics funding bills have at least some Republican co-sponsorship. When Republicans think “civics,” they imagine lessons about checks and balances and our layered federalist system. When they hear “service learning,” they imagine internships at the mayor’s office. What the new “civics” bills will actually be paying for, however, are leftist non-profits organizing school children to overrun legislative offices while chanting about the Green New Deal and gun bans. Those children will have very little knowledge of the arguments for and against the positions they advocate. The new protest civics eschews debate and replaces it with ill-informed political activism.

The tiny handful of Republican co-sponsors cajoled or duped into subsidizing what is in fact leftist protest under the guise of civics are preventing the GOP from turning these bills into the issue they ought to be in the upcoming contest for Congress. That has got to change. Congressional Republicans will be held accountable if the nightmare of a left-politicized de facto national curriculum comes to pass — although they had the power to block it. On the plus side, if Republicans come to their senses and begin to attack these so-called “civics” bills, their base will be stirred as never before.

There are now four bills proposing to expand federal funding for civics. First, there is the Civics Learning Act, which appropriates $30 million a year. This is a heavily partisan bill, with 51 Democratic sponsors and no Republicans. The priority criteria for civics grants funded by this bill clearly favor protest civics. Then there is the Civics Secures Democracy Act, the big bill that appropriates $1 billion a year for six years to fund leftist civics. This is the bill that Cornyn and Cole have stubbornly and foolishly refused to abandon. If there were any doubt about the political nature of this bill, Biden’s priority criteria for history and civics grants, and his use of COVID funding for CRT training, have removed it.

The third bill, introduced in early May, is the Inspire to Serve Act. Sponsored by Democratic Congressman Jimmy Panetta, this bill has eight Democratic sponsors and two Republicans, just enough to create the illusion of bipartisanship. Although the bill itself is so new that it is not yet available, it will likely closely resemble the text of a bill by the same name introduced by Panetta in the last session of Congress. That bill contains material related to the ROTC and military service, which likely explains how the two Republicans were lured into co-sponsorship. But the first part of Panetta’s bill doles out close to half a billion dollars a year to civic education, with a heavy stress on “applied civics” and “service learning,” euphemisms for protest civics. “Applied civics” means after-school political protest, lobbying, and work with political advocacy organizations. By some strange coincidence, such protests almost invariably turn out to be for leftist causes.

This brings us to the fourth bill, HR 3408, sponsored by Democratic Congressman Daniel Kildee. It is called the Promoting Programming, Research, Education and Preservation (PREP) Civics and Government Act. In total, this bill has six Democratic sponsors and three Republicans. This bill is also so new that we do not yet have a text. The announced purpose of the bill is to allow more money for civics education to be channeled through the National Endowment for the Humanities. Is it a coincidence that just as the Civics Secures Democracy Act has run into trouble, another route for civics grants has been proposed?

The PREP Civics and Government Act is endorsed by groups that have long supported protest civics. That especially includes the CivXNow coalition, which is also the biggest backer (and the largest likely financial beneficiary) of the Civics Secures Democracy Act.

The CivXNow Coalition has been looking to expand fast-collapsing Republican support for their bogus version of civics, and this new bill appears to be their play. CivXNow’s spokesman, Shawn Healy, claims to support “straight down the middle, classic civic education.” That is utter nonsense. Healy himself was the leading advocate for protest civics and Critical Race Theory-infused civics in Illinois before iCivics hired him away to run the CivXNow Coalition. (Read about Healy’s actual views here.) No doubt Republicans were lured into support of the PREP Civics and Government Act with the same false assurance that it would buck up traditional civics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us return to the first bill, the Civics Learning Act. This heavily partisan bill has just been reintroduced as HB 3383, with Florida Congressman Charlie Christ taking over for the original sponsor, Alcee Hastings, who recently passed away. Although the Civics Learning Act involves less money and has garnered less attention than the big Civics Secures Democracy Act, it may ultimately be the more dangerous vehicle for protest civics and CRT. That is because the Civics Learning Act is a proposed amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The ESEA is the massive law that authorizes the great majority of federal programs for K-12. This is what gets periodically modified and reauthorized by Congress under names like the “No Child Left Behind Act” or the “Every Student Succeeds Act.”

ESEA reauthorization is famously messy, and famously disastrous for conservatives. For years, the Republican congressional establishment has been determined to stay “bipartisan” on education. Typically, they ignore grassroots conservative complaints about Common Core, work a compromise with the Democrats in the dead of night (preferably, right before a holiday), then claim that they’ve given nothing away when in fact they’ve pretty much capitulated on everything. Last time ESEA was reauthorized, Republicans falsely claimed that they’d “abolished” Common Core. Nothing of the sort had actually occurred. While there are some strongly conservative Republicans on congressional education committees, those committees are disproportionately stocked with the most centrist members of the GOP.

The politics of congressional education committees are a big part of why we not only got Common Core, but why we’re losing the culture generally.  Now it’s happening again. As noted, the criteria written into the Civics Learning Act are guaranteed to earmark its millions for protest civics. Supporters of protest civics (like Shawn Healy) love blending their demonstrations and lobbying activities with CRT. Biden has also promised to administer civics grants in a way designed to favor CRT. So, the outcome of the Civics Learning Act will be thoroughly politicized civics.

Inserting the Civics Learning Act into ESEA is also tactically clever, since the amendment could serve as a shell that would allow Democrats to increase the funding for the program with later appropriations. That could come in handy if the high-profile Civics Secures Democracy Act stalls. ESEA is extremely vulnerable to such moves. Republicans don’t like the optics of blocking big education bills, no matter how awful they are. Once a leftist definition of “civics” has been inserted into ESEA, Democrats can funnel additional appropriations to the program down the road while drawing relatively little attention. For the civics-and-CRT left, this is a very smart play.

The Democrats’ strategy on civics and CRT is evidently to run bills that are partisan alongside others that are bipartisan. If the Democrats can get big funding for their distorted vision of civics through deceptively bipartisan bills, they’ll be pleased to do so. On the other hand, if their cover is blown, the public catches on to protest civics and CRT, and the big bipartisan bills are blocked, rolling over Republicans during dead-of-night deal-making with their partisan amendment to ESEA remains an option.

This makes it all the more urgent that Cornyn and Cole drop their co-sponsorship of the big Civics Secures Democracy Act. Even if that bill stalls, their presence on it is preventing Republicans from making a powerful and entirely legitimate political issue out of the legislative battle over a fast-proliferating collection of civics bills. I doubt that congressional Republicans are even tracking the savvy, multi-pronged Democratic strategy to create a lavishly funded leftist de facto national curriculum, Common Core-style, using politicized “civics” bills as a vehicle.

Whatever Cornyn and Cole do, we need Republican office-holders to make the Democrats’ radical education plans into an issue. That can only be done by attacking the bills designed to fund and enable Biden’s radical priorities for history and civics. Without big money, Biden’s pro-CRT grant-priority criteria can do only limited damage. With major funding, however, Biden can turn every public school in the country into a leftist indoctrination camp.

This is a winning issue for Republicans, if they have sense enough to notice what their own voters — and many independents and moderate Democrats — are now focused on. This is also a test for Kevin McCarthy. House Republicans will stop blindly signing on to bad civics bills if McCarthy is smart enough to single this issue out for attention. There is no doubt the education battle could help McCarthy to win back the House. With his letter on Biden’s prioritization of 1619 and CRT, McConnell is already onto this issue. But he needs to ride it harder and focus on the actual legislation if he wants to win back the Senate. On the other hand, failure to block a de facto leftist national curriculum when Republicans had the chance could easily frustrate and anger their most loyal voters, and others as well. The Democrats are determined to indoctrinate your children. It’s time for Republicans to step up and block those legislative schemes.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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