Saturday, April 13

For Republican Governors, Civics Is the Latest Education Battleground

Lisa Phillip, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at an Orlando charter school, appreciates many of Florida’s new guidelines for teaching civics.

She has enjoyed discussing, as the state requires, the advantages that the U.S. government and economy have over socialism and communism — something that some of her immigrant students feel innately, she said.

And she doesn’t mind teaching about “the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition” on the nation’s founding documents. The subject prompted her students at Central Florida Leadership Academy to reflect on how the country’s politics, they believed, fell short of the basic morality in the Ten Commandments.

This fall, Ms. Phillip is one of thousands of social studies teachers adjusting to a hotly debated overhaul of civics in several conservative states. The revamp is led by Republican governors — Ron DeSantis of Florida, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia — who have also restricted how race and gender are discussed in schools.

The new civics standards are, above all else, explicitly patriotic, emphasizing the importance of children having pride in their country. The standards do not avoid discussions of race but frame racism in a particular light, not as a structural feature of American life but as a deviation from the nation’s norms and ideals.

The guidelines also remove or reduce hands-on activities, such as mock elections, debates on current events and writing to elected officials — a reaction to widespread worry from conservatives that teachers use these activities to push their own political beliefs.

The state standards are yet another sign that the nation’s schools are on two tracks, with deep divides over what children should learn about their country. In the past decade, states like California, Oregon and Vermont have changed social studies by adopting ethnic studies requirements and adding L.G.B.T.Q. history, discrimination in housing and lending, and critiques of capitalism into the curriculum.

Civics — the study of American government and the rights and duties of citizenship — is required in most states, but only about a fifth of American students have achieved proficiency in the subject, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By eighth grade, according to the assessment, students should be able to identify the three branches of the federal government and explain the workings of the Electoral College.

Republican state officials say their civics standards will address knowledge gaps with a back-to-basics approach focused, in part, on closely reading the Constitution. But there is also an ideological motivation that some experts say could prevent students from gaining a full understanding of American government.

In Florida, Virginia and South Dakota, education policymakers turned to experts affiliated with Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan that has taken on a growing role in public education policy.

In South Dakota, Governor Noem has vowed to defeat what she called “ascendant anti-Americanism” in schools. In the state’s standards, which will be phased in over the next two years, first graders are expected to recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution and a meaty portion of the Declaration of Independence. By fifth grade, they are expected to recite the Gettysburg Address and explain the key ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

Recitation is a popular practice in classical Christian schools. But some teachers, parents and the American Historical Association have said that the standards could reduce the focus on critical thinking and have argued that for many young children, the memorization may be too difficult, particularly for those not fluent in English.

In Florida, the civics overhaul emphasizes teacher training. It offers $3,000 to instructors of every subject and grade level, including math and gym, to take either an in-person or online civics course that features scholars affiliated with Hillsdale. Tens of thousands of educators took up the offer.

“Every teacher at their core is a civics teacher,” said Stephen Masyada, director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the University of Central Florida, who has worked with the DeSantis administration on the training. “No matter what you are teaching, you’re modeling good citizenship.”

According to several teachers who took the class but asked to remain unnamed because they were not authorized to speak to the news media, the course features video lectures that contradict what mainstream historians tend to teach about the founding. The lectures state that the founding fathers were influenced by Christianity more than the secular Enlightenment and its ideas, such as Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers.

Mainstream historians tend to believe that while Christian beliefs played some role in the founding, secular ideas were more central.

Several Florida teachers expressed doubts about their preparation to teach material on Christianity, saying their training focused on secular texts and ideas.

But teachers should not need a theology background to “examine original texts” and “provide accurate and unbiased civics instruction,” Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, said in an email. Educators who question their ability to teach the influence of biblical ideas, he added, “may not be cut out to teach civics in Florida.”

On race and slavery, the civics standards follow laws that limit how history can be taught. The founders are portrayed as flawed, yet ultimately heroic.

In South Dakota, for instance, seventh graders learn that Jefferson enslaved people, but that he condemned the slave trade in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Florida’s teacher training acknowledges that the Constitution protected the institution of slavery, such as in the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clause. But the training also argues that the Constitution planted the seeds of abolition by outlining a pathway for Congress to end the foreign slave trade in 1808.

Albert S. Broussard, a history professor at Texas A&M University and an author of widely used high school textbooks on American history, said many of the framers were aware that slavery contradicted their stated republican principles. But he teaches students that the Constitution was drafted as a document “protective of racial slavery” to secure the support of Southern states.

Conservatives have pushed anti-communist curriculums for a century. The new standards oblige, by taking a swing at the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. In Virginia, where standards go into full effect in two years, students will learn about “the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes,” and will be prompted to reflect on the superiority of the U.S. government and the free market.

Aimee Rogstad Guidera, Virginia’s secretary of education, said the comparison was important because of “all the recent surveys and polls of young people who believe that capitalism doesn’t work and that socialism is a better model.”

Comparing forms of government is “a good practice,” said Donna Phillips, vice president of the Center for Civic Education. The question is whether the guidelines present “a forgone conclusion” on which systems are best; students, she said, should be encouraged to form their own ideas.

Debate, however, is de-emphasized.

In its history and civics standards, South Dakota goes so far as to warn teachers against discussing current events, stating: “Debating current political positions or partaking in political activism at the bequest of a school or teacher does not belong in a K-12 social studies class, and the color of one’s skin does not determine what one can or should learn.”

But shying away from current political events may work against the natural interest many teenagers have in exploring the world around them. Such discussions can be “motivational rocket fuel,” said David Griffith, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank focused on school choice and academic rigor.

Still, Mr. Griffith said he supported the South Dakota standards, praising what he called their “very rigorous” content.

In Florida, Mr. Masyada argued that although the state banned critical race theory, discussions of race and current events, like the killing of George Floyd, could be conducted legally.

“You can talk about it in the sense of, ‘This doesn’t live up to our founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” he said. “You can’t talk about it as, ‘Our country has always been racist.’”

The big question is whether these civics lessons will boost knowledge.

This fall, Ms. Phillip, the seventh-grade teacher in Orlando, presented fresh required content — about the ancient Greek origins of American due process protections.

Her students searched for parallels to the U.S. system.

One student asked, “Do police make the laws?”

Another wondered, “Is there a jury in divorce court?”

Ms. Phillip noted that young adolescents tended to have basic, yet profound, questions about government, which had a way of cutting through ideological debates.

“I make the choice to be positive,” she said. “America has changed a lot and there is still room to change. That’s what the Constitution is all about.”

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.