Increase investment in civic education, don’t decrease it
AS WE DIP our toes into a new school year and another presidential election cycle, the importance of an educated and engaged voting populace has never been clearer.
Yet, despite this need for understanding and engagement in our democracy, civics education in the United States is grossly underfunded and often looked at as “nice, but not necessary.” According to a 2022 report from NPR, the federal government annually spends roughly $50 per student on STEM education, yet only a paltry 50 cents per student per year on civic education.
Over the past two years, the Massachusetts Legislature has taken steps to address this imbalanced shortfall. Last year, the Legislature approved, and Gov. Baker signed, a $500,000 increase in the Civics Project Trust Fund. This year, the Legislature again overwhelmingly voted to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in civic education. In a bipartisan vote in July, the allocation to the Civics Project Trust Fund was increased 25 percent by $500,000 for district and state level support for civics.
Unfortunately, Gov. Healey vetoed the increase and instead decreased the trust fund by 25 percent to $1.5 million. In a time when the core of our democracy is being challenged and, according to national figures, less than a quarter of our 8th graders are proficient in civics, we think Gov. Healey got this one wrong. Now is the time for Legislature to reaffirm the Commonwealth’s investment and dedication to civic education and override the governor’s veto.
Civic education and engagement are foundational to building the nation’s capacity to protect and steward our democracy and justice system. America needs active and engaged participation from its electorate, especially our youth who need the knowledge, skills, passion, empathy, and opportunities to address and meet the significant challenges the country faces.
Massachusetts has long been a national leader in education policy, yet recent trends have not been kind to civics. Statewide reform policies in the early 1990s brought standardized testing that prioritized math, English language arts, and STEM education. This decreased learning time for the social sciences and often left students without a grounding in civics.
Fortunately, Massachusetts anticipated these inequities and the need to prepare our students for the responsibility of participation in our democratic society. In 2018, recognizing the need to prioritize civic education, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) created new standards centered on engaging students in their communities and classrooms.
Soon after, encouraged by advocacy from the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition, the Legislature passed and Gov. Baker signed into law nonpartisan legislation, S.2631 the Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement. The law created the Civics Project Trust Fund, which provides grants for state officials and local school districts to help implement the new DESE standards.
Since 2018, the Civics Project Trust Fund has brought millions of dollars to districts throughout the state and engaged tens of thousands of Massachusetts students in quality civic education. Much of this funding has gone specifically to school districts in need, helping to close the equity gap for the Commonwealth’s most under-resourced schools.
DESE has done good work implementing the civic education standards in classrooms across the state. Since 2018, the state education department has:
- Distributed more than $2.8 million to economically disadvantaged school districts through the Civics Project Trust Fund to support civic education.
- Provided professional development and workshops to at least 1,250 educators. DESE has hosted 35 online workshops and support forums, creating spaces for educators to interact and discuss how to best teach the new material.
- Established Civics Professional Development Pathways, which will provide professional development for civics by creating a comprehensive professional learning infrastructure for teachers across the Commonwealth.
- Created the Civics Project Guidebook to assist teachers with the student-led 8th grade and high school civics projects required by the law. The guidebook has been downloaded over 21,000 times since its creation.
- Created the Civics Fellows program, which has recruited 23 civic educators to host educator events and provide advice to other teachers to establish leaders within the subject.
- Developed innovative curricular materials to meet the new standards for priority grade levels. Working with teachers on the ground, DESE has developed and piloted an Investigating History curriculum for grades 5-7 that aligns to state standards, which began rolling out spring 2023.
Despite this progress, the Trust Fund has been unable to fully meet the demands of Massachusetts schools. There are still economically disadvantaged districts that do not receive the funding they request and need.
- Since 2020, fewer than half of proposals submitted have received any funding at all and fewer than a quarter were fully funded.
- Since 2020, school districts have requested nearly $6 million in funds from the Trust Fund, but have received less than half that amount. Of the 56 proposals the Trust received from schools and districts in 2022, only 14 proposals were fully funded.
The Civics Project Trust Fund’s inability to meet community demands represents a missed opportunity to ensure a quality civic education for all students across Massachusetts.
The bottom line is that the governor’s veto will force DESE to pull back on their local school district grant program and the statewide supports that are poised to roll out this school year. If the veto stands, these vital civic education support programs will be cut back:
- Local grants for school districts to support civic education
- Professional development for our civics teachers through the Professional Learning Pathways Program
- Development of Investigating History civics curriculum for grades 3 and 4
- Civic showcases to highlight the projects of 8th graders and high school students
Let’s hope the Legislature steps up, overrides the governor’s veto, and provides our teachers with the resources to prepare the next generation to engage in our fragile democracy.
Matt Wilson is executive director of Discovering Justice and advocacy director for the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition. Casey Cullen is a social studies teacher at Westborough High School and director of advocacy and outreach for the Massachusetts Council of Social Studies.