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Legislators Fight to Control the Content of Civic Education

Scores of bills have been introduced to limit or forbid classroom discussion of topics at the heart of modern civic life, including race and gender. Even if most won’t become law, they’re putting educators on edge.

High school student Deianna Marisol Alvarez gives a Student Change Maker speech at a Civics Day event in Austin, Texas.
(Daniel Reese/Generation Citizen)
Americans are deeply divided about what they want from government, from public health to climate policy. A survey by the UVA Center for Politics found that 8 out of 10 of both Biden and Trump voters see elected officials from the opposing party as “a clear and present danger to American democracy.” Nearly 90 percent think that “people like them” won’t belong in America anymore if the “other side” gets its way.

Despite this — or perhaps because of it — 85 percent of parents, across political parties, believe that it’s important for students to learn how the U.S. system of government works. Moreover, the 2021 American Values survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 84 percent of Americans agree that teaching about the country’s history should include “both our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country.”

Civic education has not been included among priorities for education reform for decades. In 2006, a civics knowledge survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only a third of American adults could name all three branches of government.

In 2019, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) funded the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative. More than 300 scholars, educators and students collaborated to develop a strategy that could give all students access to excellent history and civics instruction. The EAD’s report on this work, and a detailed road map to improve civic education that came from it, were published in 2021.

This wave of change gained further momentum with the introduction in the U.S. House and Senate of the “Civics Secures Democracy Act,” a bipartisan effort to provide $1 billion a year over a period of five years to support innovative and engaging civics and history programs.

As the bill is being considered, “EAD is continuing to move forward as it enters the early stages of implementation in states and districts across the nation,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics and a co-founder of the initiative.

Whatever parents and educators might want, these developments aren’t being welcomed with open arms by everyone in politics. Scores of bills have been introduced, and some enacted, to control how teachers address issues such as race and gender, civic challenges at the center of real-world partisan disputes.
Middle School students from Elgin, Texas present a project they created on their campus to prevent bullying at a 2019 Civics Day event in Austin.
(Daniel Reese/Generation Citizen)

Divisive Concepts

Until recently, researchers, civics education groups, funders and youth organizations have worked together in a climate of general agreement about approaches to K-12 civic education that can strengthen our democracy, says Andrew Wilkes, chief policy and advocacy officer for the nonprofit Generation Citizen. States such as California, New York, Massachusetts and Utah have enacted bills to strengthen this work.

“It really hasn't been until this past legislative session where we saw things take a different turn,” says Megan Brandon, a program director for Generation Citizen who formerly worked as a teacher in Texas. In February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized the need to “bolster civic education” in his State of the State Address, but HB 3979, introduced in March and signed by the governor in June, was a shock to educators.

While the bill includes a detailed list of documents and topics to be covered in civics education, including “the history of white supremacy,” it requires teachers to explore them from contending perspectives, “without giving preference to any one perspective.” It forbids credit for out-of-class advocacy or internships and limits discussion of current events.

The bill also prohibits teachers from incorporating a series of concepts in their lessons that first appeared in an executive order issued by former President Trump, language that developed out of conversations between White House staff and a conservative activist who had concluded that anti-racism has its roots in anti-American ideologies.

These so-called “divisive concepts” include “one race is or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” They are emphasized as ideas forbidden in classrooms in many bills introduced in the past year.

Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of PRRI, views them as a “complete red herring.” Nobody’s teaching that one race is inherently superior to another, he says, noting a similarity to the use of election fraud claims to score political points.

“We have real problems to wrestle with in our education systems and local governments, and this is not one of them,” he says. “It’s a distraction from the critical work that has to be done to educate the next generation.”

For some in Texas, however, HB 3979 didn’t go far enough. SB 3, enacted in September 2021, extends its prohibitions into any K-12 course or subject. “Teachers are scared across the board,” says Brandon. “They’re also confused — they’ve had very little guidance from the state as to how they’re supposed to move forward.”
Legislative intervention in curriculum has a long history. Democrat J. Sherwood Upchurch campaigned against the teaching of evolution in a failed 1926 attempt at a seat in the North Carolina state legislature. Restricting instruction on this topic continues to be a target of state-level legislation.
(North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Critical Race Theory

Bills that focus on division reflect antagonism toward the field of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which came into being decades ago to investigate the power of laws and policies to perpetuate inequality. CRT views these systemic factors, and not individual prejudice, as the biggest barrier to equal opportunity and equal justice under the law. However, some conservatives see the concept of “systemic racism” as a slur against the country and its citizens.

The 1619 Project, launched by The New York Times in 2019 to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in America, offered a historical analysis of the ways that slavery has shaped the country. The possibility that students would see this material concerned some. In 2020, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the Saving American History Act, prohibiting public schools from using federal funds to teach materials from the project.

In early 2021, the U.S. Department of Education raised hackles by referencing the 1619 Project and the work of Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar some view as a “founder” of CRT (though he was born a year after it was), in a proposed rule regarding its priorities for grants to history and civics education programs. (Kendi has characterized attacks on CRT as so far off the mark regarding the definition of the term that they amount to “critics arguing with themselves.”)

A number of bills before legislatures explicitly prohibit the teaching of both CRT and the 1619 Project but are short on detail about what this encompasses. SB 460 in Michigan does provide a definition of CRT: “anti-American and racist theories.”

A memo accompanying a Pennsylvania bill titled the “Teaching Racial and Universal Equality Act” notes that it is aimed at “curtailing the divisive nature of concepts more commonly known as ‘critical race theory.’” The bill itself does not name any concepts as reflective of CRT. This ambiguity comes with especially high stakes, as the bill gives residents the right to file a civil complaint against entities that violate it, including postsecondary institutions. If a court finds that a violation has occurred, the violating entity will be denied funding from the commonwealth in the following fiscal year.

Prohibitions, Penalties and Confusion

At this writing, well over 100 bills before legislatures in more than 30 states would affect how, or if, teachers can introduce or talk about vital matters that relate to the rights and duties of citizens. Restrictions encompass issues that can lead to real-world misunderstanding, disagreement and conflict — not just race, but gender, political philosophies, religion and even science.

“You have to be able to have conversations about difficult topics, and there's no more appropriate place to have those conversations than in a classroom that's dedicated to a civic and constitutional education,” says Christopher Riano, president of the Center for Civic Education. “It’s critical to protect the ability to have debate and dialogue — in other countries, free speech doesn’t look like it does here.”
Andrew Wilkes of Generation Citizen: "When you disincentivize or outright ban teaching about current events, or having discussions of controversial issues in the classroom, you essentially make it impossible to have informed citizenship be a goal of social studies instruction. It's not only a challenge for the classroom, it's a challenge for the country writ large." (Generation Citizen)
Tenn. AB 800 would forbid the adoption or use of materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” (Emphasis added.) A South Carolina bill includes “theoretical” ideas such as gender fluidity, the existence of genders other than male and female and the suggestion that race is a social construct in a list of “discriminatory concepts.” The last is not theoretical but a scientific reality, according to the National Human Genome Institute.

Many bills include penalties, ranging from professional discipline to loss of funding and a civil right of action for parents, or in some instances any citizen, to sue schools and teachers. Oklahoma SB 1401 specifically states that persons found liable for damages, at a minimum rate of $10,000 “per incident” must pay from personal resources, without assistance from other persons or groups. An Indiana bill threatens loss of accreditation. New Hampshire has a website at which parents and community members can report violations of the anti-CRT bill the state enacted. An advocacy group offered $500 to the person that “first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law.” Some pending bills include a requirement to create a reporting mechanism.

Following this trend, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin included anti-CRT positions in his campaign. After his election, he issued an executive order calling for the elimination of divisive concepts and set up a “tip line” to receive reports about the teaching of them.

Other bills include provisions such as a requirement for schools to post curriculum online, parental right to hold a child back from a lesson that covers a topic they find objectionable, or requirements to allow classroom visitors or provide live video from classrooms. About 10 percent apply to institutions of higher learning.

Most bills don’t make it into law, but even if some of these proposals have an aspect of political theater, they can still put pressure on schools and put parents on alert.

Their reliance on doublespeak to ban things that aren’t part of any curriculum — e.g., “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” — makes it hard for educators to see the path forward. This was revealed dramatically in a viral audio recording obtained by NBC news in which a beleaguered Texas school administrator suggests that teachers might need to provide an “opposing perspective” on the Holocaust.

“Teachers have been worn thin by the past two years of a pandemic," says Dubé. “Now many are entering classrooms without knowing exactly what they are allowed to teach – and what the ramifications will be if they make a misstep.”

What Are They Afraid Of?

There’s no question that every student should feel respected and comfortable in school, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, that’s exactly what the parents of Black, Hispanic, Native American and trans children have been saying for years.

“Of course, nobody should be made to feel bad about their ethnicity or religion, of course everybody should be respected,” she says. “Part of the way that you do that is you acknowledge and recognize everybody’s lived experience; to acknowledge that slavery happened is not to say that every white person is bad.”

If students aren’t taught how to embrace lived experiences of others, to accept differences, schools are not giving them the tools they will need to navigate a complicated world. “That’s going to hurt them,” says Weingarten. “I bet on kids all the time, their capacity to love and understand, to deal with complexities and be resilient, but we have to help them develop that muscle.”

Teachers have made Herculean efforts to keep schools safe and welcoming during the pandemic, adapting to shifting demands for in-person, hybrid and remote learning. Many are considering leaving their jobs due to the combination of these pressures and hostility from parents who disagree with public health rules. A recent survey by the National Education Association found that 55 percent of educators are thinking this way, up from 37 percent in August. Inviting attacks and penalties in response to their approach to social studies could make the difficult working environment the pandemic has precipitated even worse.

“We need more of our best and brightest young people going into education,” says Jones. “We’re certainly going to miss out on people of color wanting to choose that path if they can’t teach American history that includes stories of people who look like them.”

Weingarten finds it hard to understand what’s behind efforts by legislators to deny students access to books and ideas that they might not encounter otherwise, exposure that can help them become well-rounded, critical thinkers.

“What are they afraid of?” she says. “That’s my biggest question.”

The 2021 Harvard Youth Poll found that most young voters, no matter their party affiliation, would prefer for policymakers to work together. 

The Wisdom of Youth

According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone and about half are “almost constantly” on the Internet. A 2019 Common Sense census found that teens spent an average of seven hours and 22 minutes on screens each day, not including schoolwork.

This generation has unlimited access to all of the ideas that recent bills are attempting to keep out of classrooms. Sahana Sudarsan, a high school student in Austin, is convinced that her peers already have much more exposure to them than adults realize.

“You can’t really avoid hearing about things that are going on with critical race theory, especially with social media and the quick infographics you see everywhere,” she says.

Sudarsan interned with Generation Citizen during the summer when the first Texas civics law was enacted. This experience gave her a clear view of the ways such legislation could affect efforts by teachers and civic education groups such as Generation Citizen.

“You read the text of the legislation, and you read articles about what it actually means and it’s really kind of shocking,” she says. “It’s really scary that what’s being taught in schools is being regulated so heavily.”

Faced with restrictions on classroom discussion, Sudarsan decided to start a podcast that would encourage students to become civically engaged. Her first episode gave the lie to any suggestion that students can’t leave their comfort zone and talk about a complex civics issue.

A student at her school had written an editorial for the school paper arguing that the recent, and highly controversial, Texas abortion law had not gone far enough. This prompted “huge amounts” of criticism and anger, says Sudarsan. A student with an opposing view wrote an article in response.

Sudarsan invited both of the students to be guests on her podcast. The episode was built around a discussion about giving and receiving criticism and the best ways to talk openly “without letting your emotions and preconceived notions about people take over.”

What would she say to legislators who want to keep tough conversations like this out of the classroom? “Think about the future: If we grow up with a distorted view of the world, systemic issues — which do exist — will never get fixed.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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