Working toward the Restoration of Federal Funding for History, Civics, and Social Studies Education
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was last authorized in 2001, winning strong bipartisan support during the George W. Bush administration under the rubric of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Congressional Republicans and Democrats agree on notoriously little these days, but there is near unanimity that NCLB engendered unintended negative consequences without meeting the lofty goals promised when the law passed over a decade ago. Most notable was an overemphasis on testing that forced educators to “teach to the test” in order to meet rigorous achievement standards established under the law. The tests’ emphasis on reading and math meant that subjects such as history, civics, and social studies received less class time.
While agreeing that the nation’s K–12 education system suffers from numerous problems and challenges, Congress has deadlocked on developing a fix. Major ideological differences divide the two parties on a host of issues surrounding NCLB. The law expired in 2007 during the 110th Congress; eight years later, the first session of the 114th Congress commenced without any progress having been made in the meantime. In 2011 and 2013, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee marked up bills that never saw action on the floor. In 2013, on a strict party-line vote, the House passed a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; the Senate never took up the bill.
With the Republican Party assuming control of both houses of Congress in January 2015, the prospects for passage of the long-stalled reauthorization of the ESEA have improved. Both Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, and Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, have already released similar draft ESEA bills. Both Alexander and Kline are vowing to “fast-track” their education plans through committee markup and to the House and Senate floors by the end of February. However, even if a bill successfully passes Congress, it will then require President Obama’s signature.
Moreover, nothing in either Senator Alexander or Representative Kline’s drafts addresses history and civics education. Both take the approach that states and local education agencies should receive federal education funds with very few strings attached. Kline’s draft eliminates over 60 existing federal programs, including the Education Department’s Teaching American History (TAH) grants, which Congress has not funded since FY 2011, when appropriations earmarked for civics education were also defunded. In addition, National History Day, authorized under the History and Civics Act of 2004 and appropriated $500,000 in 2010 and 2011, saw its funding terminated in 2012. Since FY 2011, no federal funding has been provided for K–12 history or civics education.
In 2010, President Obama released “A Blueprint for Reform,” which detailed his administration’s plans for reauthorizing the ESEA. While the administration agreed with the elimination of TAH grants, it never intended that all federal funding for history education be discontinued. The blueprint proposed consolidating funding for several K–12 subjects into a single competitive grant program, Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education. Had the plan been adopted, history and civics would have competed for funding with subjects such as foreign languages, arts, geography, and economics. However, Congress never gave the president’s plan serious consideration, and the Republican majority has since ignored the “well-rounded education” approach.
The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS) has worked closely with the National Coalition for History (NCH) for more than five years on policy advocacy for history and civics learning. They are valuable allies of history education advocates in our continuing quest for support of professional development for pre-collegiate teachers.
In February, NCH and CMS sent letters (see previous page) to Chairman Alexander and the HELP Committee members urging them to adopt a provision establishing a competitive grant program for history and civics targeted at low-income and underserved communities. The provision resembles an amendment offered by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), adopted and passed by the HELP Committee in 2011 as part of a previous attempt to pass an ESEA reauthorization bill.
This modest proposal is hardly a panacea for the much larger problem of the decline in history and civics learning in elementary and secondary education. History, civics, social studies, and in fact all humanities subjects have been given short shrift by the Obama administration in favor of STEM funding. Despite long odds, NCH will continue to press both Congress and the administration to ensure that students receive the well-rounded education they need for “college, career, and citizenship.”
Lee White is executive director of the National Coalition for History.
© 2015, the National Coalition for History
February 2, 2015
The Honorable Lamar Alexander
United States Senate
455 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Alexander,
The National Coalition for History (NCH) is a consortium of over 50 organizations that advocates on federal legislative and regulatory issues. The coalition is made up of diverse groups representing historians, archivists, researchers, teachers, students, political scientists, museum professionals and other stakeholders. Several of NCH’s members are national groups with missions centered solely on K-12 history education.
In fiscal year (FY) 2012 Congress terminated funding for the “Teaching American History” (TAH) grants program at the Department of Education. Appropriations earmarked for civic education and federal funding for National History Day, a nationally-recognized program which increases student participation in historical studies across the country, were also eliminated. As a result, since FY 11 there has been no federal funding provided for history or civics education.
These cuts came at the time national assessments of student’s knowledge of American history and civics showed alarming results. The U.S. History 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grades 4, 8, and 12 showed that less than one quarter of K-12 students performed at or above the “proficient” level. In addition, the 2010 NAEP measuring civics education, showed fewer than 25 percent of 12th graders were able to demonstrate proficiency in civics.
There is ample room for those of all political persuasions and educational philosophies to work together in a collaborative spirit to provide the next generation of Americans with a first rate education in American history and civics. We are all in favor of an educational system that yields an informed citizenry capable of respecting a wide range of perspectives on the past. These critical skills in historical thinking are valuable tools that students will apply to all their subjects—and to their lives. Employers often declare that writing effectively, analyzing cause-and-effect relationships, and researching across a wide variety of source materials are some of the essential skills they seek when appraising job candidates.
We appreciate your long record of support for history and civics. As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee we urge you to include the following language in the reauthorization of ESEA. This was originally drafted by Senator Enzi and included in the 2011 Committee-passed ESEA reauthorization bill (modified to include American history):
Insert, in the section on Programs of National Significance:
Grants shall be made to support developing, implementing, evaluating, and disseminating for voluntary school use innovative, research-based approaches to civic learning and American history, which may include hands-on civic engagement activities, for low-income elementary school and secondary school students, that demonstrate innovation, scalability, accountability, and a focus on underserved populations.
Inclusion of this competitive grant program in the ESEA bill will help each state improve its instruction in these subjects so critical for our nation’s future. Research has demonstrated how to engage students in learning civics and American history, and teach them the analytic skills to apply their knowledge to present-day challenges. The loss of funding to disseminate evidence-based curricula has denied effective instruction in civics and history to far too many students.
As Americans, and as educators, we share the goal of ensuring that students receive the well-rounded education that will make them ready for “college, career, and citizenship” upon graduation. We urge you to support this modest proposal to increase civic literacy and historical knowledge amongst K-12 students in underserved populations.
National Coalition for History
The following NCH member organizations have asked to add their individual endorsement:
American Association for State and Local History
American Historical Association
American Political Science Association
Association for Documentary Editing
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
National Council for History Education
National Council on Public History
National History Day
Organization of American Historians
Southern Historical Association
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