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November 25, 2009

the Center for Civic Education audit

The Center for Civic Education, a national nonprofit organization that is mostly funded by the United States Department of Education, was recently audited. In USA Today, Matt Kelley's article is headlined, "Audit: Civic education group misused $5.9M." The Center is responding aggressively, disputing most of the accusations and asserting that the media coverage (which I think means only the USA Today story so far) "contain[s] numerous inaccuracies." Their full response is here (PDF).

The Center is correct to note that the "audit is the first step in a process that could take several months and will result in a resolution made by the Department of Education." We should hope that this process ultimately vindicates the Center and the charges turn out to be inaccurate or merely technical. I have read the full report but have neither the expertise nor the standing to assess it.

I am concerned that the fallout from this news may damage federal support for civic education, which is already very weak. Public schooling was originally established in the United States in order to prepare Americans for democratic participation. Even before the launch of universal public schools, during the founding era, Congress decided that since schools were "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," "education shall forever be encouraged." That statement is from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for the creation of public schools in the new territories of the west. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush advocated more ambitious schemes of public education--not to improve students' employment prospects or to boost the economy, but to help Americans to participate in self-government.

Today, the federal investment in civic education is minuscule: about 0.06% of federal education spending. Civic education was absent from No Child Left Behind and has a marginal place in the federal bureaucracy. In schools and classrooms across America, actual civic education is often scarce, or dry and alienating, or reserved for more successful students (who also tend to be more affluent). There are severe gaps in opportunities for civic learning. Those gaps reinforce unequal outcomes. The voting and volunteering rates are twice as high for young people on a college track as for their non-college-bound peers.

Thus the federal government has a fundamental responsibility, not to provide civic education to American youth, but to help develop and encourage effective methods that can educate and motivate all students, including marginalized ones. At present, almost all of the federal investment for that purpose takes the form of subsidies to the Center for Civic Education. There are arguments for and against that strategy. I have argued against it, but I acknowledge that the Center's earmark has helped keep civic education alive in dark times and has created a durable, national network of civic educators. Whatever happens to the Center now, Congress and the Administration must increase--not drop--their support for civic education.

November 25, 2009 8:50 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments



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