Opinion: Invest more than a nickel in civics education

An advocate for increased civics education in U.S. schools says the current annual federal investment per student in civics education is five cents per student.
An advocate for increased civics education in U.S. schools says the current annual federal investment per student in civics education is five cents per student.

Credit: Alex Wong

Credit: Alex Wong

Ideological squabbling threatens federal grant legislation that would fund more civics

Dr. Randell E. Trammell is the founder and CEO of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, which educates and equips students to become informed and active citizens. In this guest column, Trammell urges the U.S. Congress to endorse bipartisan federal legislation authorizing a billion dollars a year in grants to underwrite civics education.

The bill is becoming a victim of the culture wars. As the Washington Post reported over the weekend: “Conservative media and activists are pelting the Republicans who support the bill to abandon it. They call the grant program a ‘Trojan horse’ that would allow the Biden administration to push a liberal agenda ... A backlash has ensued, in which critics allege schools are trying to indoctrinate children with what they call damaging lessons about critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. They say the civics grants could be used to advance that cause.”

A national expert in youth civic engagement, Trammell works with school districts across the country in developing policies and programs to bolster civic ideals. He says the bill is not political in any way and is vital to shoring up civics education, which has fallen to the wayside with the pronounced emphasis on science, technology and math.

By Randell E. Trammell

Growing up, I remember going to the barber shop with a crisp $5 bill in my hand to “get my ears lowered.” Now before you dismiss me to the generation who walked to school barefooted uphill both ways in the snow, we’re talking late 1980s to early 1990s. I will concede the fact that with your $5 investment, there was little room for style — but it suited the purpose. Of course, for reference, gasoline cost 89 cents a gallon.

One of my fondest memories was that every time I went for a haircut, AJ, my barber, would open up the old cash register drawer, put in my $5 and give me a nickel back to put into one of the old-fashioned gumball machines — like the ones that would raise funds for the Lions Club. In my mind, that was a deal: sit still for a little while, give the man some money, and I’d get some gum.

Truth is that a nickel won’t buy you much these days — certainly not a gumball. However, shockingly enough, that is the annual federal investment per student in civic education. That’s right — one shiny nickel. While I certainly don’t begrudge our colleagues in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, their annual educational resource investment is about $55 per student.

The heightened politicization of the past five years has brought many to question the ability for our democratic republic to endure. The current climate is creating a wedge between colleagues, neighbors, and yes, even families.

Our response, thus far, has been to pull those out of the river that we can save and hope for the best. This is a sort of “triage” citizenship approach. However, I would assert anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu had the best approach when he said, “We need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.” Put another way by my granny, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” It’s so simple that it’s almost laughable. But then again, so is the annual investment of one shiny nickel in civics education.

The U.S. Congress now has a bipartisan bill entitled Securing Democracy Through Civics Act that seeks to address the funding issue — or as I suggest, the “falling in the river” issue. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Delaware, and Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa Delauro.

However, as the Washington Post article “Civics legislation snared in national debate over talking about race” noted this weekend, an “ideological food fight” has broken out over the legislation.

I am one of the members of the National Steering Committee working to support the legislation representing Georgia. I have spent the past nearly two decades serving students in our great state teaching them the legislative process and the importance of giving back to their communities in service to others. I can tell you this legislation is not a sneaky way to usher in an ideological revolution.

The legislation is not establishing national standards nor embracing any curriculum. The legislation supports local control — so much so that the bulk of the funds are to be distributed as competitive grants to the states to then, in turn, reinvest them in local school systems through competitive grants.

Dr. Randell E. Trammell
Dr. Randell E. Trammell

At the end of the day, if this legislation is passed, local school systems in Georgia will remain in control of how government/civics and American history are taught. They will, however, be given tools and training opportunities to help their teachers that are aligned to Georgia Standards of Excellence — many of which will be developed by my organization, the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, or the Georgia Council for the Social Studies to name a few.

Thus far in Georgia, only U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, has added his name to the legislation as a co-author and supporter. I have contacted every member of our congressional delegation’s office asking for support. To date, I have only heard back from two.

To me, this is not a “right” issue or a “left” issue. This is a matter of getting the ball down the field and scoring a goal for all of Georgia’s students. If passed, the legislation could mean an additional $34 million per year to support government/civics and American history education in Georgia — and that is just through grants to schools. There’s another pipeline of funding through the legislation for nonprofits like the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement and others who are making a difference for both teachers and students.

It is high time for our elected leaders to lay party politics aside for just a moment — and do the right thing: fund civics education.

We have an opportunity before us for “We the People” to invest in the future of our democratic republic. I know that every single one of Georgia’s congressional delegates are individuals who love their country, love their state, and signed up to run for office to make the world a better place. This is their chance to do so.

What does a nickel buy? The honest answer is nothing these days — and especially not a quality civics education.

For additional information on how you can get involved, you can reach Randell Trammell by email: randell@georgiacivics.org.

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