Tuesday, September 8, 2015

If you pick up a newspaper, magazine, or academic journal around Constitution Day, you are very likely to read about the troubling decline in civic knowledge and engagement in this country. The statistics I discussed in the introduction to this special section are startling.

What you are less likely to read about is the troubling decline in funding to support the very organizations seeking to address the deficit in civic knowledge. In 2011, federal funding for civics education through the U.S. Department of Education was zeroed out, cutting nearly $35 million of support from the civics education community. We are also beginning to get a clearer picture of a correspondent decline in private philanthropic support for civics education and constitutional literacy.

Preliminary data from The Foundation Center’s “Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy”1 resource shows that annual funding for civics education from private foundations over the last several years has remained perilously low. Based on the first round of research using data provided by the Foundation Center, we found that private foundation funding between the years 2011 and 2013 has stagnated between approximately $33 million and $41 million for the entire civic education community. While more research needs to be done to determine the exact amount of support from private foundations over the last several fiscal years, the prevailing sentiment in the community is that the overall amount will remain low, especially relative to current levels of support in other fields. By way of comparison, the Intel Foundation gives approximately $45 million in annual grants to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. The Intel Foundation is one of hundreds of private foundations currently supporting STEM education.

The disparity in funding levels for the two communities is striking. While the proposed 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the Senate restores limited funding for history and civics education through competitive grants, it does not specify the total amount to be reinvested in this community. By comparison, the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal from the President includes over $170 million to improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects.

This is consistent with an observation made by the Civic Mission of Schools in 2003 that, “[f]or decades, civic education curricula and programs [have] received decreasing amounts of time, money and attention while schools focused on preparing students for employment and for tests of academic progress. The traditional civic purpose of schools effectively has been forgotten.” While STEM education is important and essential, so, too, is civics education.

In response to the multi-faceted crisis facing civics education, a number of robust coalitions and campaigns have been formed. The Civics Renewal Network,2 a coalition of 26 non-profit and governmental organizations, including ConSource, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, iCivics, the Newseum and the National Constitution Center, is seeking to raise the visibility of K-12 civics education and to make high-quality resources more accessible to educators. The National Constitutional Literacy Campaign, which is responsible for this special section, is a broad-based campaign that is bringing together non-partisan non-profit organizations, for-profit entities, and ideologically-oriented groups to promote constitutional literacy from kindergarten to the grave.

These efforts like many others in the field are currently being accomplished without major foundational support, something they could greatly benefit from. The coalitions and campaigns are supported by the voluntary efforts of members of the organizations and institutions that are leading this push. It’s worth noting that many of the organizations volunteering their time and efforts are simultaneously facing budget shortfalls and, in some cases, barely have enough funding to cover staff costs and basic programming.

It is important to recognize the organizations that do continue to invest in civics education, while also noting that in many cases they are not funding at the same level as they have in the past. The top funders include (1) The Freedom Forum; (2) The Bank of America Charitable Foundation; (3) John William Pope Foundation; (4) Charles Koch Foundation; (5) Stephen Bechtel Fund; (6) John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, (7) The John Templeton Foundation; (8) Aurora Foundation; (9) Douglas & Maria DeVos Foundation; (10) The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Again, between 2011 and 2013, these organizations, among others, contributed between $33 million and $41 million to civics education.

This not only pales in comparison to the total amount invested in STEM education, but will be eclipsed by the total amount of money raised to pay for the 2016 presidential election, which could cost upwards of $5 billion. Political giving is distinct from other philanthropic giving, but it is difficult to square that level of support for campaigns with the fact that the very organizations that educate our citizens and ensure that our voters are informed and engaged face budget shortfalls and closing doors.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor created iCivics and is perhaps the highest profile advocate for civics education. “It is imperative if we are going to survive as a nation that our schools teach civics,” she said. “Knowledge and understanding about our system of government is not something that’s handed down in the gene pool. You have to learn it.” I would add that to learn it, you have to teach it, and to teach it effectively you need the time and resources to do so. That requires the federal government, private foundations, and individual philanthropists to reinvest in the constellation of organizations working to ensure that our nation’s citizens are informed and engaged throughout their lives.

• Julie Silverbrook is Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource), a 501(c)(3) organization devoted to facilitating greater access to and understanding of United States Constitutional History. Please visit our website at www.ConSource.org to learn more.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.