Orrin Hatch: We must fix civics education to protect American democracy

Orrin G. Hatch, Opinion contributor
·6 min read

What a decade this year has been.

A once-in-a-century pandemic has tested the resilience of our citizens and the ability of government to respond. Meanwhile, our economy is on the ropes with a recovery slow coming and millions of Americans still out of work due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Set all of this against the backdrop of the most significant social unrest the nation has seen since 1968 and a contentious election looming on the horizon.

This year, if nothing else, has been a stress test for our democracy. The events of one of the most tumultuous years in American history have pushed our fragile experiment in representative government to the breaking point — but it has not broken.

While our democracy remains intact, we see with new eyes its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and the need to fortify it against future challenges.

The question is: How can we restore our democracy to its former health? How can we ensure that it doesn’t break in the future? And how can we reverse the trends of growing polarization, civil unrest and distrust of institutions that threaten to tear us apart?

The answer starts in the classroom. By restoring civic education to its proper place in our schools, we can revitalize our democracy and preserve the American experiment for future generations.

The seeds of division and dysfunction now undermining our society were sown — at least in part — by decades of neglect in the area of civic education. In a new report by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, "Commonsense Solutions to Our Civics Crisis," we establish strong links between poor civic education and a number of ills plaguing our democracy, including depressed voter turnout, low trust in institutions and decreasing faith in the free-market economy.

If poor civic education is exacerbating these trends, then we know that better civic education is necessary to reverse them. That’s why we need an all-hands-on-deck effort to recenter civics at the heart of America’s public schools.

Adding urgency to this project is the fact that we are in the midst of a full-blown civics crisis. Americans hold their own elected officials in such low regard that only 17% trust the government to “do what is right” most of the time.

Meanwhile, civic participation across all demographics lags far behind that of other developed countries. And when it comes to understanding how our economic and constitutional systems work, there is an epidemic of ignorance that has been around much longer than the coronavirus.

According to recent surveys from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 39% of Americans can name all three branches of government while 37% cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Our civics crisis can be traced to a precipitous decline in funding for civic education over the years that has left the next generation ill-equipped for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

STEM takes priority over civics

Consider that, in the past decade alone, funding for civic education has dropped from $150 million in 2010 to a measly $5 million today. All the while, federal funding for STEM has reached new heights. Today, the U.S. government spends approximately $54 per student to further STEM learning and a paltry 5 cents per student for civic education.

Judging by the disparity in federal funding, our priorities are clearly out of whack. While STEM subjects are undeniably important to growing our economy, civics is indispensable to preserving our democracy.

And we are doing younger Americans a tremendous disservice by failing to give them the civic education they deserve. In effect, we are handing them the keys to the car without giving them driving lessons, putting our nation on the road to democratic ruin.

The good news is, it’s not too late to turn the car around.

Many policymakers are waking up to the fact that civic education is in critical need of reform, but just how to reform it is another question. To answer that question, the Hatch Foundation partnered with David Davenport of Stanford’s Hoover Institution to outline concrete policy proposals to address America’s civics crisis.

The first step is boosting funding. To reprioritize civics in our schools, we call for a 100-fold increase in federal funding for civic education. This includes a commitment of more than $500 million to improve teacher development in civic education, coupled with grants of $1 million a year or more from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Require testing on civics knowledge

The second step is to improve testing. We need a complete overhaul of federal testing for civic education to ensure that the subject takes precedence in the classroom. That’s why we propose mandating testing in U.S. history and government for grades 4, 8 and 12, and reporting these results both nationally and by state. And we wholeheartedly endorse the creation of a civics exam as a requirement for graduating high school.

We also call for a significant increase in civics instruction across all grade levels, but especially in high school, where the subject often takes a backseat to STEM. The gold standard is a strong presence of civics in the elementary and middle school curriculum culminating in a year-long course in civics in high school.

Finally, we need to focus federal and state funds on enhancing teacher training and development. In addition to the 100-fold increase in federal funding for civic education, we call on states to devote more resources to assist teachers charged with educating the next generation of public leaders in civics and history. We likewise propose a reshaping of civics curriculum to emphasize civic knowledge before civic action and to encourage the teaching of history through primary documents.

Failing to address the civics crisis is not an option. Why? Because at stake is nothing less than the life and well-being of our democracy. That’s why we must enact bipartisan reform now to restore the primacy of civic education in our schools.

To secure America’s future, I hope federal, state, and local leaders will heed this call to action.

Orrin G. Hatch served in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 2019 and is now chairman emeritus of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Orrin Hatch: Fix civics education to protect American democracy