You shouldn’t build a “national church” if you’re a “minority religion,” University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene has cautioned for years.
By that, Greene means that those working to reform existing systems shouldn’t look to the national level for policy implementation, as they risk creating an architecture that could be co-opted for different ends in the future.
Yet, education scholar Chester “Checker” Finn says that’s exactly what conservatives should do as he argues in favor of a national civics curriculum.
Finn says that it is “time for conservatives to suppress their allergic reaction to a ‘national curriculum’ long enough to encourage developing and deploying a national ‘citizenship’ course.”
Although, importantly, Finn says that this effort would “optimally” be undertaken by private philanthropy and that he is “nowhere close to suggesting that the federal government should impose such a course on anyone,” but he’s fine with federal funding incentives to states in return for adoption of a national civics curriculum.
That’s where a well-intentioned idea gets complicated.
As Greene has long warned, special-interest groups and teachers unions are far more politically powerful than those working to reform the system. So, those “minority religions” in favor of building a “national church” should recognize that “inevitably it won’t be their gospel being preached.”
Whose civics gospel will it be?
Perhaps that of The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones. After all, her “1619 Project,” which claims that “[o]ur democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The 1619 Project already has been adopted in an estimated 4,500 classrooms across the country.
Some of us are still battle-worn from the Common Core wars. As brutal as that fight was (and remains), the Common Core pushback was against national standards and tests for math and reading—seemingly innocuous when compared with what a debate over civics content would likely bring.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed for national history standards. Conservatives viewed them as highly politicized; others saw them as too lengthy and unwieldy for teachers. Ultimately, 99 members of the U.S. Senate voted to condemn the standards.
That’s a fight that would be relitigated under any national effort to define civics curriculum.
Finn’s desire for a stronger civics curriculum is understandable. Too often what we see today is civic activism without civic knowledge, to paraphrase David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute.
One need look no further than the Annenberg civics survey finding that just one-third of Americans can name a single branch of government. Or the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ civics outcomes. Just 23% of American eighth-graders are proficient in civics, according to the most recent administration of the test.
Clearly, we cannot abandon the debate about the content that is taught to the 45 million children in public schools across the country today. That’s a point Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute makes forcefully when he says doing so “risks abandoning the next generation to semi-literacy and, therefore, less than full citizenship.”
Nor should that ground be ceded to the political left, which, former Education Secretary William Bennett has argued, “knows very well what it intends to do.”
But right now, the market is going gangbusters providing strong civics content in response to overall interest in how civics in taught. Crowning a single national curriculum as the model U.S. civics curriculum would threaten to blunt that welcome momentum.
Whether it’s the Jack Miller Center, the Bill of Rights Institute, the James Madison Institute, or the Ashbrook Center, scores of organizations are rising to the occasion to provide solid civics curriculums grounded in the founding principles.
What we need now is for public school principals to work with their school boards and have a curriculum- and textbook-adoption process in place to secure these excellent resources in schools across the country.
Parents should demand they do so.
At the same time, we should continue to expand private school choice and enable children to attend private schools that are the right fit for them.
The most rigorous research finds that private school choice increases political participation, tolerance, and voluntarism, and enhances overall civic values.
The district school monopoly has been failing in this regard for decades. National civics standards won’t correct a fundamental misalignment in power and incentives that exist due to an absence of school choice for most families. Indeed, such standards would complicate matters.
Choice, coupled with parents’ involved in the content taught in their children’s public schools, provides a better path forward.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal