Category Archives: Academic Papers

Civic Ignorance and Democratic Accountability

Published in Loyola Law Journal

There is growing recognition that Americans’ diminished civic participation and the erosion of democratic norms are linked to low levels of civic literacy, defined as a basic understanding of the structures and values of American Constitutional government. This Essay considers the evidence for that link and the importance of civic education in a diverse society.

Introduction………………………………………………………………………. 419
I.  Civic Ignorance……………………………………………………………….. 420
II.  Democratic Vitality and the (Un)Informed Voter…………… 421
A.  How Did We Get Here?…………………………………………….. 423
III.  Consequences……………………………………………………………….. 426
IV.  America’s Civil Religion……………………………………………….. 428
Introduction
For at least the past decade, political scientists have expressed growing concern over the erosion of democratic norms as well as the inadequacies and outright corruption of both governance structures and electoral processes.[1] Those expressions of concern markedly accelerated in the wake of the 2016 election, which saw accusations of vote irregularities, various “dirty tricks,” and the victory—compliments of the Electoral College—of a candidate who lost the popular vote by a margin of nearly three million.[2]
Scholars and pundits have offered a variety of theories to explain the loss of democratic accountability, and many of their analyses are persuasive. Undoubtedly, a number of factors have contributed to the current weaknesses of America’s democratic systems. It is the thesis of this paper, however, that the significance of one such contributing cause is routinely underappreciated: the American public’s lack of civic literacy.[3]

I.  Civic Ignorance
A substantial and growing body of data indicates that a majority of Americans are woefully ignorant of America’s Constitution and basic legal structures. In 2016, only 26 percent of the American public could name the three branches of government.[4]Fewer than half of twelfth graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and only 35 percent of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution.[5] In a survey cited by the Carnegie Foundation, just over one third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,”[6] and just under half (47 percent) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling.[7] Almost one third mistakenly believed that a United States Supreme Court ruling could be appealed,[8]and one in five believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution.[9] A mere 14 percent of the public thought the case would be sent back to the lower courts.[10] Thus, there is an enormous amount of research confirming the nature and extent of Americans’ civic deficit.[11]

II.  Democratic Vitality and the (Un)Informed Voter
There is, as noted above, widespread agreement among scholars and pundits that the United States has experienced a significant erosion of democratic processes and norms and a corresponding loss of democratic legitimacy.[12] Voters exhibit high levels of distrust of the country’s political structures and express considerable cynicism about the nation’s governance.

A survey of the relevant literature suggests that the erosion of American democracy can be attributed to three interrelated causes: ignorance (especially of politics and governance, and defined as a lack of essential information, not stupidity); the growth of inequality (not just economic inequality, but also civic inequality, and power and informational asymmetries); and a resurgent tribalism (racism and White Nationalism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity).

On a personal level, civic ignorance complicates the interactions between citizens and their government that are an almost daily part of American life in the twenty-first century. Ignorance also exacerbates inequality; citizens who understand how the political system works are advantaged in a number of ways over those who do not. Ignorance of the overarching national principles to which citizens are bound encourages political constituencies to work for passage of laws and policies advantageous to their specific interests (or consistent with their parochial worldviews) that often conflict with both the Constitution and the common good.

Americans’ cynicism about government and their fear and suspicion of those they see as “other” have been exacerbated by a media environment in which large amounts of disinformation are disseminated through websites and multiplying social media platforms.[13] Spin, propaganda, “fake news,” and outright conspiracies thrive in the Wild West that is the internet, and civic ignorance facilitates their wide acceptance. According to American Intelligence agencies, Russian “bots” successfully exploited both that ignorance and America’s tribal differences during the 2016 election cycle.[14]

A.  How Did We Get Here?
In Diversity and Distrust, Stephen Macedo addressed the importance of civic education and the civic mission of the nation’s public schools.[15] As he wrote, the project of creating citizens is one that every liberal democratic state must undertake, and that project requires what he called “a degree of moral convergence” in order to sustain a constitutional order.[16] The most pluralist, diverse, and tolerant polities still require substantial agreement on basic political values. Such agreement (or disagreement, for that matter) requires knowing those values. The primary responsibility for transmitting that information lies with the public schools.

American public education has been criticized and attacked for years. Business organizations complain about inadequate workforce development; technology companies demand more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instruction.[17] Urban minority populations point to glaring evidence of unequal resources between schools attended primarily by poor children and those located in wealthier suburbs.[18] Popular magazines “rate” high schools and colleges by calculating the percentages of students who are gainfully employed upon graduation, and state-level legislators respond to the critics by requiring ever-more rigorous high-stakes testing, and threatening to “weed out” teachers whose classes fail to meet the desired test results. That testing almost never includes evaluation of civic competence.[19]

In many states, privatization advocates have established state voucher programs that permit parents to remove their children from the public school systems entirely and send them to private (almost always religious) schools.[20] A recent survey I conducted with a colleague found that none of those programs require participating schools to offer civics instruction.[21]Although the outcomes of these and other specific efforts to improve public education range from distressing to debatable, the very different diagnoses of the systems’ problems and reformers’ very different prescriptions for improvement have highlighted what may be the most significant impediment to effective education reform: a lack of agreement about what education is, how success should be measured, and what the mission of public schools should encompass in a diverse and democratic nation.[22] To say that people engaged in this public debate are continuing to talk past each other would be an understatement.

Education reform that neglects the civic mission of public schools would seem to be inadequate by definition, yet education reformers have only recently begun to focus on the importance of civic education.[23] An added irony of that neglect is that schools are increasingly being tasked with helping students achieve “news literacy” by equipping them with tools they can use to assess the credibility of the media sources they encounter.[24] One of the most effective such tools is civic knowledge. When a website, blog, or other news source accuses a political figure of doing or failing to do something that falls outside her authority, or makes a claim that is otherwise inconsistent with American constitutional principles or governance structures, students who are civically literate are far more likely to recognize those misstatements and to question the credibility of the sources providing them.

The contrast between students in the majority of states, which have largely abandoned the teaching of civics, with students from those few that continue to offer and fund effective civic education is striking. In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the activism and eloquence of the students who survived frequently raised the question: Why are these kids so articulate and effective?
As the Christian Science Monitor explained, “[t]hanks to state law, [Marjory Stoneman Douglas students] have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without—one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.”[25]

“Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.[26] “The goal is to make every student like that—not afraid to discuss difficult issues,” and to teach students the skills and knowledge necessary to express a viewpoint.[27]

In 1996, Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter published What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters.[28] It remains one of the most important studies of America’s low levels of civic literacy. As they wrote:

[F]actual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them . . . knowledge is a keystone to other civic requisites.  In the absence of adequate information neither passion nor reason is likely to lead to decisions that reflect the real interests of the public. And democratic principles must be understood to be accepted and acted on in any meaningful way.[29]

When America’s schools ignore their responsibility to provide students with an adequate civic education, there are no other institutions able to fill the resulting vacuum.

III.  Consequences
As a purely practical matter, individuals who don’t know what officeholders do, who don’t understand the division of responsibility between federal, state, and local government units, who don’t know who has authority to solve their problems with zoning or trash removal or missing social security payments, or the myriad other issues that arise at the intersection of public services and individual needs, lack personal efficacy. At best, that lack of knowledge is a barrier to the prompt resolution of issues that most citizens must deal with. At worst, it puts them at a considerable disadvantage in legal or political conflicts with more informed citizens.

The multiple implications for democratic governance, however, are far more serious than the personal disadvantages exacerbated by civic ignorance. For one thing, voters who have only the haziest notion of the tasks for which their elected officials are responsible have no way of evaluating the performance of those officials for purposes of casting informed votes. Voters who don’t understand checks and balances or the functions of the judiciary are more easily persuaded that “imperial” courts have acted illegitimately when a decision is issued with which they disagree, and to believe that the courts should represent majority opinion rather than uphold the rule of law.[30] Voters who don’t know their rights are more easily deprived of those rights by state actors who are acting illegitimately, as various examples of vote suppression have illustrated. Citizens intimidated by authority are unlikely to petition local or state government agencies for redress of grievances, whether those grievances are streets and sidewalks in disrepair or partisan gerrymandering.[31] Additionally, research confirms that less knowledgeable citizens are less likely to engage with the democratic system, and much less likely to vote.[32] Civic ignorance ultimately results in civic inequality.

Even more troubling is the fact that people who have never encountered, and thus don’t understand, the basic philosophy of the United States Constitution can neither form an allegiance to its principles nor articulate reasons for rejecting such an allegiance. Lack of knowledge of the structures of governance, and the lack of personal and democratic efficacy that results, breeds suspicion and cynicism about the powers that be. These attitudes not only discourage civic participation, but also have a detrimental effect upon the individual’s identification with other American citizens. As a result, rather than seeing themselves as part of the American mosaic, rather than seeing American diversity through the lens of e pluribus unum, the loyalties of the uninformed tend to default to their tribal affiliations.

Unlike citizens of countries characterized by racial or ethnic homogeneity, American identity is rooted in allegiance to a particular worldview; it is based upon an understanding of government and citizenship originating with the Enlightenment and subsequently enshrined in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. When a polity is diverse, as in the United States, it is particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions. In the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common devotion to constitutional principles and democratic norms is critical to the formation of national identity. That devotion obviously requires knowing what those principles and norms are. If American diversity means that our national ideals must constitute our civil religion and act as our social glue, ignorance of those ideals becomes far more consequential than is commonly understood.

The United States’ national motto, e pluribus unum, translates into “out of the many, one,” and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or civil religion, is required in order to turn the many into the one.[33] Traditional religions cannot serve that purpose in our polyglot society; adherents of virtually every religion on the globe live in the United States, and recent polls show considerable growth in the numbers of Americans who consider all religion irrelevant to their lives and value structures.[34] Americans don’t share races or ethnicities or countries of origin, and those who live in different parts of the United States occupy different political and social cultures. These extensive differences raise profoundly important questions: What commonalities are available to enable and define the collective civic enterprise? What makes one an American?

IV.  America’s Civil Religion
The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, and it remains the standard reference for the concept.[35] The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of debate since the Revolutionary War. Over the past decades, as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency. A civil religion, or common value structure, provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not, and has never been, an officially Christian nation, although culturally it has historically been Protestant. Furthermore, the United States Constitution contains no reference to deity, and Article VI, Clause 3, specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office.[36] In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony.[37] Americans’ dramatically different approaches to traditional religion and spirituality means that religious theologies cannot serve as the country’s civil religion.

However, most Americans do claim to endorse an overarching ideology, or civil religion: a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.[38] If those claims are to have actual content, if allegiance to the Constitution is to function as an “umbrella” belief system that supersedes tribalism, citizens must have a familiarity with its principles and their application, and a common understanding of their proper application.
Currently, they do not.

Significantly improving citizens’ levels of civic literacy will not magically repair America’s currently broken governance, but we will not be able to fix what is broken without such improvement. Civic literacy is not sufficient, but it is essential.

*Sheila Kennedy is Professor of Law and Policy at the Paul H. O’Neil School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and the founder of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI.

[1].See Nancy Bermeo, On Democratic Backsliding, 27 J. Democracy 5, 13 (2016) (“Strategic election manipulation . . . is on the rise . . . .”); see also Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die 2 (Penguin Random House 2019) (2018) (“American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices.”). There are literally hundreds more articles and books charting concerns about the diminishing of democratic norms. In October of 2017, Vox convened a group of twenty noted scholars at Yale University to discuss the status of democratic self-government. There was broad agreement that American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts—socially, culturally, and economically. See Sean Illing, 20 of America’s Top Political Scientists Gathered to Discuss Our Democracy. They’re Scared., Vox (Oct. 13, 2017), https://www.vox.com/2017/10/13/16431502/
america-democracy-decline-liberalism [https://perma.cc/K8LT-N7M2] (“The scholars pointed to breakdowns in social cohesion (meaning citizens are more fragmented than ever), the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion.”).
[2].In 2012, Common Cause and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights compiled a report identifying growing examples of vote suppression. See Common Cause & Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Deceptive Election Practices and Voter Intimidation: The Need for Voter Protection 1, 2 (2012), https://lawyerscommittee.org/wp-content/
uploads/2015/07/DeceptivePracticesReportJuly2012FINALpdf.pdf [https://perma.cc/9AQA-REM6] [hereinafter Common Cause Vote Suppression Report 2012] (“These ‘dirty tricks’ often take the form of flyers or robocalls that give voters false information about the time, place, or manner of an election, political affiliation of candidates, or criminal penalties associated with voting.”); see also Joshua Clark, Widening the Lens on Voter Suppression: From Calculating Lost Votes to Fighting for Effective Voting Rights 9(Haas Inst. for a Fair & Inclusive Soc’y at UC-Berkeley 2018), https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/haas
_institute_wideningthelensonvotersuppression_july2018_publish.pdf [https://perma.cc/K6VQ-JMJB] (“Since the 2016 presidential election, public interest in voting misconduct has surged . . . .”).
[3].See Michael X. Delli Carpini & Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters 278 (Yale University Press 1996) (“[S]ubstantial differences between advantaged and disadvantaged citizens and groups in access to political knowledge (and the means for efficiently acquiring it over a lifetime) will remain.”); Robert L. Dudley & Alan R. Gitelson, Political Literacy, Civic Education, and Civic Engagement: A Return to Political Socialization?, 6 Applied Dev. Sci. 175, 176 (2002) (“A 1987 survey conducted by the National Constitution Center, for instance, concluded that 62% of the respondents could not name all three branches of government.”). See generallyWilliam A. Galston, Civic Knowledge, Civic Education, and Civic Engagement: A Summary of Recent Research, 30 Int’l J. Pub. Admin. 623 (2007). For an overview of the copious literature documenting Americans’ lack of civic literacy, see the annotated bibliography maintained by the Center for Civic Literacy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Ind. Univ. Ctr. for Civil Literacy, Annotated Bibliography, https://civicliteracy.iupui.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Annotated-Bibliography_CCL.pdf [https://perma.cc/3K3Q-5QLB] (last updated Sept. 11, 2013) [hereinafter IUPUI Annotated Bibliography].
[4].Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2018 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey 1, 1 (2018), https://cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/
Appendix_2018_Annenberg_civics_survey.pdf [https://perma.cc/E7V7-YBBZ] [hereinafter Annenberg Survey].
[5].Sheila Kennedy, Is Low Civic Literacy a Wicked Problem?, Ind. Univ. Ctr. for Civic Literacy: Civic Blog (Jan. 1, 2015), https://civicliteracy.iupui.edu/is-low-civic-literacy-a-wicked-problem/ [https://perma.cc/D9KR-UBP8] (“Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify ‘We the People’ as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.”).
[6].Leonore Annenberg Inst. for Civics, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools 4 (Jonathan Gould et al. eds, 2011), https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/
ab/dd/abdda62e-6e84-47a4-a043-348d2f2085ae/ccny_grantee_2011_guardian.pdf [https://perma.cc/B52R-8KVR] [hereinafter Guardian of Democracy].
[7].Annenberg Survey, supra note 4, at 5.
[8].Guardian of Democracy, supra note 6 at 4.
[9].Id.
[10].Id.
[11].The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI has been researching both the causes and consequences of that civic deficit since 2012, and has produced both a body of original research and an annotated bibliography detailing the copious amount of previously existing scholarship about what Americans know and don’t, and why that ignorance matters. See IUPUI Annotated Bibliography, supra note 3.
[12].See Meira Levinson, The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions, in Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth 331 (Lonnie R. Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, & Constance A. Flanagan eds., 2010) (“[T]here is a profound civic empowerment gap in the United States . . . . [P]olitical power is distributed in vastly unequal ways among U.S. citizens.”); see also Ludvig Beckman, Deciding the Demos: Three Conceptions of Democratic Legitimacy, 22 Critical Rev. Int’l Soc. & Pol. Phil. 412 (2019).
[13].See Robert Chesney & Danielle K. Citron, Disinformation on Steroids, Council on Foreign Rel. (Oct. 16, 2018), https://www.cfr.org/report/deep-fake-disinformation-steroids [https://perma.cc/J64L-DTHT] (“In the United States and many other countries, society already grapples with surging misinformation resulting from the declining influence of quality-controlled mass media and the growing significance of social media as a comparatively unfiltered, many-to-many news source.”); see also Chris Meserole, How Misinformation Spreads on Social Media, and What to Do About It, Brookings Inst. (May 9, 2018), https://www.brookings.edu/
blog/order-from-chaos/2018/05/09/how-misinformation-spreads-on-social-media-and-what-to-do-about-it/ [https://perma.cc/7XGS-CP4K] (“The flow of misinformation on Twitter is thus a function of both human and technical factors. Human biases play an important role: Since we’re more likely to react to content that taps into our existing grievances and beliefs, inflammatory tweets will generate quick engagement.”).
[14].See Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President 43 (2018) (“With a large network consisting of Russian trolls, true believers, and bots, it suddenly became easier to get topics trending with a barrage of tweets.”); see also Martin Matishak, Intelligence Heads Warn of More Aggressive Election Meddling in 2020, Politico (Jan. 29, 2019), www.politico.com/story/2019/01/29/dan-coats-2020-election-foreign-interference/ [https://perma.cc/5ZB4-TDSL] (“[T]he clandestine community remains keenly aware of the threat following the massive, Kremlin-backed assault on the 2016 presidential election.”).
[15].Stephen Macedo, Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy 230 (2000) (“The one thing we should not do is to ignore the civic purposes that have so powerfully shaped the institution of public schooling.”).
[16].Id. at 2.
[17].See James Bessen, Workers Don’t Have the Skills They Need – and They Know It, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Sept. 17, 2014), https://hbr.org/2014/09/workers-dont-have-the-skills-they-need-and-they-know-it [https://perma.cc/Y4BS-7L77] (“[E]mployers have repeatedly reported that they have difficulty finding workers with the skills needed for today’s jobs.”); see also Arthur Herman, America’s High-Tech STEM Crisis, Forbes (Sept. 10, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/
arthurherman/2018/09/10/americas-high-tech-stem-crisis/ [https://perma.cc/22RW-ZUJX] (“Experts have complained for decades that Americans don’t excel enough in the so-called STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.”).
[18].Rebecca Bellan, $23 Billion Education Funding Report Reveals Less Money for City Kids, CityLab (Mar. 27, 2019), www.citylab.com/equity/2019/03/education-nonwhite-urban-school-districts-funding-tax/585691 [https://perma.cc/46LY-PCTN].
[19].See Cullen C. Merritt et al., The Civic Dimension of School Voucher Programs, Pub. Integrity Online (Dec. 20, 2018) (manuscript at 11–14), manuscript available at https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/17672/Merritt,%20Kennedy,%20Farnworth.pdf?sequence=1 [https://perma.cc/4HRS-GCU7] (noting the limited prevalence of civics courses in both public and private elementary school settings).
[20].Id. (manuscript at 6) (citing Henry M. Levin, A Comprehensive Framework for Evaluating Educational Vouchers, 24 Educ. Eval. & Pol’y Analysis 159, 168 (2002)).
[21].Id. (manuscript at 28).
[22].Id. (manuscript at 16).
[23].A recent report from the National Council for the Social Studies, titled Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools, confirms both the sad state of civic knowledge and the gradual recognition that schools need to do better. Nat’l Council for the Soc. Studies, Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools (2013), https://www.socialstudies.org/positions/revitalizing_civic_
learning [https://perma.cc/W6SZ-FQSR] (“[T]he narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools’ ability to provide high quality civic education to all students. Further threatening the civic health of our nation is the civic opportunity gap that emerges when schools provide poor and nonwhite students fewer and less high-quality civic learning opportunities than they provide to middle class and wealthy white students—all of this at a time when democratic aspirations are surging across the globe.”).
[24].See Erika Karp, Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy Launches Groundbreaking MOOC, Ctr. for News Literacy (Dec. 12, 2016) https://www.centerfornewsliteracy.org/stony-brooks-center-for-news-literacy-launches-groundbreaking-mooc/ [https://perma.cc/2TG4-CZHD] (explaining the Center’s new course intended to help students determine the credibility of news).
[25].Story Hinckley, Teens Take the National State, Armed with . . . Civics Lessons?, Christian Sci. Monitor (Mar. 23, 2018), https://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2018/0323/Teens-take-the-national-stage-armed-with-civics-lessons [https://perma.cc/B2EA-B6SW].
[26].Id.
[27].Id.
[28].Carpini & Keeter, supra note 3.
[29].Id. at 5.
[30].Alia Wong, Civics Education Helps Create Young Voters and Activists, Atlantic (Oct. 5, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/10/civics-education-helps-form-young-voters-and-activists/572299/ [https://perma.cc/9J7Q-9RHC].
[31].See Sheila Kennedy, God and Country: America in Red and Blue 67 (Baylor University Press 2007) [hereinafter Kennedy, God and Country] (discussing inherent tension between local and federal determination of policy). See generally Sheila Suess Kennedy, What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU? (Prometheus Books 1997).
[32].Alex Vandermaas-Peeler et al., American Democracy in Crisis: The Challenges of Voter Knowledge, Participation, and Polarization, PRRI (July 7, 2018), https://www.prri.org/research/
american-democracy-in-crisis-voters-midterms-trump-election-2018/ [https://perma.cc/8623-5VST]; see also William A. Galston, Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education, 4 Ann. Rev. Pol. Sci. 217, 223–24 (2001) (discussing the significance of political knowledge and the direct relationship between such knowledge and participation in public matters).
[33].See Robert N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, 96 Daedalus 1, 5–9 (1967) (explaining how religions work with one another to create a civil religion in America).
[34].See Jack Jenkins, ‘Nones’ Now as Big as Evangelicals, Catholics in the U.S., Religion News Serv. (Mar. 21, 2019), https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/ [https://perma.cc/B86R-32EK] (noting a 2 percent rise in Americans who report having no religious traditions since 2016, matching overall identification of both Evangelicals and Catholics).
[35].See generally Bellah, supra note 33.
[36].U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 3 (“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”).
[37].American legal history is replete with cases challenging prayer and religious practices in the nation’s public schools, and the propriety of affixing religious mottos to public buildings. Meanwhile, efforts to make American law conform to the beliefs of some religious denominations about abortion are, if anything, more fervent than ever, as are efforts to roll back hard-won civil rights of LGBTQ citizens.
[38].See Kennedy, God and Country, supra note 31, at 35.

The cultural transmission of religious worldviews has clearly contributed to the salience of religion as a persistent feature of the American experience. Despite the religious fervor of the Great Awakening and the explicitly religious ideology expressed through the revolution, at the time of the nation’s founding, only 17 percent of Americans were actually members of any church. Despite this low level of actual religious affiliation, the then prevailing cultural worldviews rooted in religion have shaped later American attitudes in numerous ways.

Id.

American Polarization

I have been attending a conference on American Political History, for which I prepared a paper. The following is my (abbreviated) presentation of that paper–still considerably longer than my daily posts, so be forewarned….

_____________________________________

America’s first motto was e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” That motto has always been more aspirational than descriptive, but thanks to a number of factors– from residential sorting to the hardening of racial and religious attitudes– America now faces fissures in the body politic that call even the aspiration into question.

Humans are hard-wired to be tribal—to prefer those we see as our “own kind” to members of groups that register as “other.” Recognition of this aspect of human nature is hardly new; multiple studies deal with aspects of human tribalism, and there’s an equally large number detailing the various mechanisms through which humans express, reinforce and justify tribal prejudices. History records the frequently horrifying consequences of dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” during wars and other conflicts, and the equally appalling behaviors that stem from the demonizing of targeted minority populations by dominant majorities within a single country.

The term tribalism is shorthand for this human predisposition to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. There is considerable evidence that some degree of in-group favoritism is an inescapable attribute of group membership. It is the favoritism that is problematic; the human need to be part of a family, clan or tribe is not in itself a negative. Just as our families and more extended clans provide us with emotional and material support, membership in a larger group with which one identifies has its benefits. The presence of what sociologists call bonding social capital provides people within the relevant groups with cultural norms, and (at least within one’s group) supports increased levels of interpersonal trust and reciprocity, assets that facilitate collaborative action.

It’s when identification with a tribe operates to exclude and demean anyone who isn’t a member—when it creates a world peopled by “us” (good) and “them” (bad)—that it becomes destructive. It becomes especially dangerous when the definition of “us” is narrow, dependent upon immutable characteristics or upon rigid adherence to a particular ideology or religious belief that excludes and distrusts others. When negative stereotypes of an out-group are endorsed by celebrities or political authority figures, the damage can be substantial; for example,  researchers have linked Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets to spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Identity
Although the terms “identity” or “identity politics” can mean different things depending on the context, for purposes of this analysis, the terms reference an individual’s group affiliation, or social identity. As noted, identification with others in a particular group or category can confer feelings of acceptance and provide role models: this is how “we” behave. When individuals conclude that “I am like the other people in this group” and I am unlike “those people in other groups,” that recognition can lead to a sense of belonging and a recognition of interdependence with others in the relevant “tribe.” That said, membership in a tribe is usually accompanied by some degree of suspicion of those who fall outside that tribe. Trouble starts when that suspicion is heightened, and members of other groups are seen as competitors, enemies, or threats that must be subdued or eliminated. When “we” are God’s chosen, and “they” are by definition abominations, tolerance of difference is simply not possible.

The United States has not been immune from tribal conflicts, and today’s citizens continue to struggle with their legacies. America may have abolished slavery, but racism has proved much harder to eradicate. Religious conflicts and anti-Semitism have been—and remain—a constant. Women continue to struggle against an attitudinal “glass ceiling” that works against genuine equality in both the home and workplace. It wasn’t until the 1960s that LGBTQ citizens began emerging from the closet in significant numbers, and homophobia, like racism, continues to characterize much of American culture. And the country is experiencing yet another eruption of the hostility with which we have repeatedly greeted successive waves of immigrants.

In much of America’s admittedly contentious past, except for individuals who were automatically categorized as “other” by virtue of an immutable characteristic like race or gender, American affiliations have tended to be cross-cutting, meaning that people often identified as a member of several different communities having limited overlap. Individuals with such heterogeneous affiliations are likely to interact on a regular basis with fellow citizens holding views contrary to their own, and less likely to stereotype and malign people with whom they disagree as a result. In his seminal study The Social Requisites of Democracy, Seymour Martin Lipset concluded that that democratic stability is enhanced when individuals and groups have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations. As a 2018 article in The Guardian noted, “[R]esearch has lined cross-cutting cleavages with toleration, moderation and conflict prevention.”

For a number of reasons, America’s “tribes” have become far more overlapping, meaning that people’s various identities have coalesced in ways that reinforce each other. As a result, and thanks also to the residential “sorting” documented by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, most Americans have much less interaction with people who have opinions different from those of their tribes, and are less likely to engage with ideas and beliefs different from their own.

Historically, American tribal conflicts have centered upon identities and affiliations that were difficult or impossible to change: the ethnic, racial and religious differences that have been a source of human conflict for centuries. Those differences remain potent today. Racism, in particular, has re-emerged with a vengeance, and it isn’t limited to the White Nationalist movements that have become active across much of Europe and the United States. Longstanding racial and religious fault-lines have been deepened by the emergence of newer ideological and cultural cleavages, many of which are exacerbated by geography: in today’s U.S., for example, the worldviews of urban and rural inhabitants are frequently incommensurate. Research has documented deep differences in values and outlook between Americans who are well-to-do (or at least economically comfortable) and the poor, and between white people with a college education and white people without. Americans’ affiliations have become increasingly reinforcing rather than cross-cutting, enabling the growth of a toxic partisanship that sees the world in stark terms of black and white and right versus wrong. These world-views demand winners and losers.

Thanks to a variety of factors, significant numbers of Americans currently occupy “bubbles” populated largely by people who share and fortify their preferred worldviews. Even a cursory examination of the 21st Century media and policy environment allows  identification of several of those worldviews, as well as the environments that created and nurture them.  A caveat: the following list is not exhaustive—and due to time constraints, the categories are described in far more depth in the paper.

  • Cosmopolitan and Parochial.  Cosmopolitanism challenges the primacy citizens place onattachments to the nation-state and other parochial shared cultures. The cosmopolitan/parochial divide shares many attributes with classism.
  • Richer and Poorer.The economic divide between America’s rich and poor is now as damaging as it was during the Gilded Age.  This dangerous and growing gap between struggling Americans and the well-to-do means they have increasingly disparate life experiences and live increasingly segregated lives.
  • College Educated and Not. In the 2016 election, white voters divided sharply based upon their levels of education. Clinton carried counties with high numbers of educated voters, and even high income low education counties voted for Trump.
  • Urban versus Rural.Urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them, and attitudes on social issues reflect that difference. They are also far more likely to be Republican.
  • Republican versus Democrat, Liberal versus Conservative.An individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Lilliana Mason notes that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”  Partisan identity has become a shorthand encompassing racial, professional and religious identities. Party identification now outweighs ideological commitments, as can be seen by the acquiescence of Republican lawmakers to Trump’s tariffs that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.
  • Black, White, Brown. It is impossible to talk about tribalism, of course, without addressing the stubborn persistence of racism. Age-old racial hatreds have been fed by economic anxieties and by demographic changes that threaten white Christian Americans with loss of their long-time social dominance and privilege. The  election of America’s first African-American President exacerbated long-simmering racial resentments, giving rise to the so-called “birther” movement, while Donald Trump’s overt appeals to racist sentiments have unleashed a sharp increase in racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant assaults.

America’s cultural and political polarization has been facilitated by the Internet and the reduced reach of so-called “legacy” media that previously provided the country with (relatively homogenized) information. The current media landscape allows Americans to consult a multitude of news and opinion sites of widely varying credibility and to choose the “news” that accords with their partisan preferences. Social media has encouraged the sharing of dubious assertions and unfounded accusations. One result has been a widespread loss of confidence in our ability to know what is factual and what is not—to distinguish between journalism and propaganda. The widespread availability of disinformation is especially troubling because the American public has abysmally low levels of civic literacy.

Economic insecurity, the threatened loss of jobs to global trade and especially automation, and the rapidity of social and technological change have contributed to widespread fear and uncertainty. Too many political figures have appealed to those fears rather than trying to ameliorate them. There is also the increasing complexity of the national and international issues we face, and the failure to reform antiquated government structures that are increasingly inadequate to meet the challenges posed by changes in where and how today’s Americans live.

All of these developments and many others have been consequential. That said, it is impossible to analyze the ways in which these changes have been experienced and various tribes have been formed without recognizing the degree to which America’s historic struggle with racism has exacerbated the salience of all of them.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism” today, it behooves us to recognize that the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, the rights of individuals were largely dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant political order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.) Your rights vis a vis your government depended largely upon who you were—your religion, your race, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, any white male born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history. All of what we think of as core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not treat people differently based solely upon their identity. Eventually (and for many people, very reluctantly) America extended that founding principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation. Racism is thus a rejection of a civic equality that is integral to genuinely American identity.

When the nation’s leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. The political divisions that are so stark in our polarized time represent, at least in part, a clash between those who fear we are departing from that essential (if imperfectly recognized) commitment to equality and those who want to “return” to an imagined White Christian America.

Religious Liberty?

As America becomes more diverse, and White Christians face the loss of cultural hegemony, they have increasingly turned to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to make arguments about their right to an expansive and ahistorical “religious liberty.”

A bit of history for this history conference: What the phrase “Religious liberty” meant to the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock was the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could even be separated would have been incomprehensible to the Puritans; the liberty they wanted was freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and to live under a government that would impose that religion on their neighbors.

The Puritans defined liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” to impose the correct religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted our Constitution had a very different understanding of liberty. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science and empiricism, privileged reason over superstition, and caused philosophers to reconsider the purpose and proper role of government.

Liberty had come to mean the individual’s right to self-government, the right to decide for oneself what beliefs to embrace. Liberty now meant the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of both state coercion and what the founders called “the passions of the majority,” so long as they did not harm others, and the Bill of Rights limited what government could require even when a majority of citizens approved.

The problem is that, although America’s Constitution and legal framework were products of the Enlightenment, many American citizens remain philosophical Puritans.

Many of the fundamentalist Christians fearing loss of cultural hegemony are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make rules for everyone else.

Under the Constitution, Americans have the right to believe anything they want. They do not have an absolute right to act on those beliefs. (You can sincerely believe God wants you to sacrifice your first-born, but the law doesn’t let you do that.) Many people have trouble understanding that distinction.

Opponents of civil rights for LGBTQ citizens argue that rules preventing businesses from refusing to hire employees who offend their religious beliefs, or from firing or otherwise discriminating against such individuals, denies them religious liberty. (This is a variant of the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of those doing the bullying.) They argue that they should be able to discriminate against gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if they claim a religious motivation. Of course, an exemption for discrimination based upon “religious motivation” would eviscerate civil rights laws.

This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to act upon a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted women to be subordinate and the races to be separate. And it did limit their liberty. In a civilized society, the right to do whatever one wants is constrained in all sorts of ways: I don’t have the liberty to play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down city streets. And so on.

Civil rights laws are an outgrowth of the social contract. The citizen who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business–- expects local police and fire departments to protect her store, expects local government to maintain the streets and sidewalks that enable people to get there, expects state and federal agencies to protect the country, to issue and back the currency used to pay for his products, and to ensure that other businesses and institutions are playing by the rules and not engaging in predatory behaviors that would put him out of business. People of all races, religions, genders and sexualities pay the taxes that support those government responsibilities, and in return, have a right to expect those who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or other goods to any member of the public willing and able to pay for them.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment give religious folks the right to exclude those they consider “sinners” from their churches, their private clubs and their living rooms. That right does not extend to their hardware stores.

Today’s Americans live with over 330 million others, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from their own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respects those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives. Only a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is able to safeguard anyone’s religious liberty.

History teaches us that social change that threatens the privileged status of dominant groups will be ferociously opposed by those groups. Throughout American history, when previously subordinated populations have demanded a seat at the civic table, those whose hegemony was threatened have resisted. That resistance may not completely explain today’s polarization, but it has massively contributed to  it.

As Mark Twain is said to have observed, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

We live in rhyme time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pontificating About Civic Literacy

Friday, I participated in a conference titled “Democracy in America–Promises and Perils” at Loyola Law School in Chicago. My concerns will not come as a surprise to regular readers. Here’s what I said.

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For at least the past decade, political scientists have expressed growing concern over the inadequacies and outright corruption of America’s electoral processes and governance structures, and the erosion of the country’s democratic norms. Those expressions of concern accelerated in the wake of the 2016 election, which saw accusations of vote irregularities and various “dirty tricks” and the victory, compliments of the Electoral College, of a candidate who lost by a margin of nearly three million votes.

Undoubtedly, a number of factors have contributed to the current weaknesses of America’s democratic systems. It is the thesis of my paper, however, that the significance of one such contributing cause is routinely and dangerously underappreciated: the American public’s lack of civic literacy.

A large and growing body of data gives evidence that a majority of Americans know little or nothing about America’s Constitution and basic legal structures. In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. Last year, that number was worse: 24%. In a recent survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought the Founding Fathers gave the president “the final say” over the other branches; just 47% knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is sent to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.) The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI has been researching both the causes and consequences of that civic deficit since 2012, and has produced both a body of original research and an annotated bibliography detailing the copious amount of existing scholarship about what Americans know and don’t, and why that ignorance matters.
There is widespread agreement among scholars that the United States has experienced a significant erosion of democratic norms, and a corresponding loss of democratic legitimacy. As a result, voters exhibit high levels of distrust of the country’s political structures, and express considerable cynicism about the nation’s governance.

Analysis of the relevant literature suggests that the erosion of American democracy can be attributed to three interrelated causes: Ignorance (especially of politics and governance, and defined as a lack of essential information, not stupidity); the growth of Inequality (not just economic inequality, but also civic inequality, and power and informational asymmetries), and a resurgent Tribalism (racism and White Nationalism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity).

On a personal level, civic ignorance complicates the interactions between citizens and their government that are an almost daily part of American life in the 21stCentury. Ignorance also exacerbates inequality; citizens who understand how the political system works are advantaged in a number of ways over those who do not. Ignorance of the overarching national principles to which citizens are bound encourages political constituencies to work for passage of laws and policies advantageous to their specific interests (or consistent with their parochial worldviews) that often are in conflict with both the Constitution and the common good.

Americans’ cynicism about government and their fear and suspicion of those they see as “other” are constantly being exacerbated by a media environment through which large amounts of disinformation are disseminated. Spin, propaganda, “fake news,” and outright conspiracies thrive in the Wild West that is the Internet and social media, and civic ignorance facilitates their wide acceptance. According to American Intelligence agencies, Russian “bots” successfully exploited both that ignorance and America’s tribal differences during the 2016 election cycle.

In Diversity and Distrust,Stephen Macedo addressed the importance of civic education and the civic mission of the nation’s public schools. As he wrote, the project of creating citizens is one that every liberal democratic state must undertake, and that project requires what he called “a degree of moral convergence” in order to sustain a constitutional order. The most pluralist, diverse and tolerant polities still require substantial agreement on basic political values. Such agreement (or disagreement, for that matter) requires knowing what those values are–and the primary responsibility for transmitting that information lies with the public schools.

American public education has been severely criticized for years. Business organizations complain about inadequate workforce development; technology companies demand more STEM instruction; urban minority populations point to resource inequalities between schools attended primarily by poor children and those located in wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs. Popular magazines “rate” high schools and colleges by calculating the percentages of students who are gainfully employed upon graduation, and state-level legislators respond to all of it by requiring more high-stakes testing. Whatever its other benefits or flaws, that testing almost never includes evaluation of civic competence.

In many states, privatization advocates have established voucher programs that permit parents to remove their children from the public-school systems entirely, and send them to private (almost always religious) schools. A recent survey I conducted with a colleague found that none of those programs require participating schools to offer civics instruction. Although the outcomes of vouchers and other efforts to improve public education have so far ranged from distressing to debatable, the very different diagnoses of the systems’ problems and reformers’ very different prescriptions for improvement have highlighted what may be the most significant impediment to effective education reform: a lack of agreement about what education is, how success should be measured, and what the mission of public schools should encompass in a diverse and democratic nation. To say that people engaged in this public debate are continuing to talk past each other would be an understatement.

Education reform that neglects the civic mission of public schools would seem to be inadequate by definition, yet education reformers have only recently begun to focus on the importance of civic education. An added irony of that neglect is that schools are increasingly being tasked with helping students achieve “news literacy,” by equipping them with tools  to assess the credibility of the media sources they encounter. One of the most effective tools is civic knowledge: when a website, blog or other “news” source accuses a political figure of doing or failing to do something that falls outside her authority, or a claim is made that is otherwise inconsistent with American constitutional principles or governance structures, students who are civically-literate are far more likely to recognize those misstatements and to question the credibility of the sources providing them.

The contrast between students in states that have largely abandoned  teaching civics with students from the very few that offer and fund effective civic education is striking.  In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, the activism and eloquence of the students who survived frequently raised the question “why are these kids so articulate and effective?”

According to the Christian Science Monitor,

Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.

Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education.

In 1996, Delli Carpini and Keeter published “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters.” It remains one of the most important studies of America’s low levels of civic literacy.

As they wrote,

“Factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them…. Knowledge is a keystone to other civic requisites.  In the absence of adequate information neither passion nor reason is likely to lead to decisions that reflect the real interests of the public. And democratic principles must be understood to be accepted and acted on in any meaningful way.”

When America’s schools ignore their responsibility to provide students with an adequate civic education, there are no other institutions able to fill the resulting vacuum.

As a purely practical matter, individuals who don’t know what officeholders do, who don’t understand the division of responsibility between federal, state and local government units, who don’t know who has authority to solve their problems with zoning or trash removal or missing social security payments or the myriad other issues that arise at the intersection of public services and individual needs, lack personal efficacy. At best, that lack of knowledge is a barrier to the prompt resolution of issues that most citizens have to deal with; at worst, it puts them at a considerable disadvantage in legal or political conflicts with more informed citizens.

The multiple implications for democratic governance, however, are far more serious than the personal disadvantages. For one thing, voters who have only the haziest notion of the tasks for which their elected officials are responsible have no way of evaluating the performance of those officials for purposes of casting informed votes. Voters who don’t understand checks and balances or the functions of the judiciary are more easily persuaded that “imperial” courts have acted illegitimately when they issue a decision with which they disagree, and to believe that the courts should reflect public opinion rather than uphold the rule of law. Voters who don’t know their rights are more easily deprived of those rights by state actors who are acting illegitimately, as various examples of vote suppression illustrate.  Citizens intimidated by authority are unlikely to petition local or state government agencies for redress of grievances, whether those grievances are streets and sidewalks in disrepair or partisan gerrymandering, and research confirms that less knowledgeable citizens are less likely to engage with the democratic system, and much less likely to vote.

Even more troubling is the fact that people who have never encountered, and thus don’t understand, the basic philosophy of the U.S. Constitution can neither form an allegiance to its principles nor articulate reasons for rejecting such an allegiance. Lack of knowledge of the structures of governance, and the lack of personal and democratic efficacy that results, breeds suspicion and cynicism about “the powers that be,” attitudes that not only discourage civic participation, but have a detrimental effect upon the individual’s identification with other American citizens. As a result, rather than seeing themselves as part of the American mosaic, rather than seeing American diversity through the lens of e pluribus unum, the loyalties of the uninformed tend to default to their tribal affiliations.

Unlike citizens of countries characterized by racial or ethnic homogeneity, American identity is rooted in allegiance to a particular worldview; it is based upon an understanding of government and citizenship originating with the Enlightenment and subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. When a country is as diverse as the United States, it’s especially important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions. In the absence of other ties, a common devotion to constitutional principles and democratic norms is critical to the formation of national identity. That devotion, obviously, requires knowing what those principles and norms are. If American diversity means that our national ideals must constitute our “civic religion” and act as our social glue, ignorance of those ideals becomes far more consequential than is commonly understood.

The United States’ national motto, e pluribus unum, translates into “out of the many, one,” and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one. Traditional religions cannot serve that purpose in America; adherents of virtually every religion on the globe live in the U.S., and recent polls show considerable growth in the numbers of Americans who consider all religion irrelevant to their lives and value structures. Americans don’t share races or ethnicities or countries of origin, and those who live in different parts of the United States occupy different political and social cultures. These extensive differences raise a profoundly important question: what common ties are available to enable and define the collective civic enterprise? What makes one an American?

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of pretty constant debate, and as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency. A “civil religion” or common value structure provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. Americans’ dramatically different approaches to traditional religion and spirituality means that religious theologies cannot serve as the country’s civil religion.

However, most Americans do claim to endorse an overarching ideology, a/k/a civil religion: a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. If those claims are to have actual content, if allegiance to the Constitution is to function as an “umbrella” belief system that supersedes tribalism, citizens need to be familiar with its basic principles and their application. Currently, they aren’t.

Significantly improving citizens’ levels of civic literacy will not magically repair America’s currently broken governance, but we will not be able to fix what is broken without such improvement. Widespread, basic civic literacy isn’t sufficient, but it is essential.

Vouchers, Education and Democracy

I was recently asked to write the entry on school vouchers for publication in the upcoming Encyclopedia of Public Administration. Here it is.  (Warning: it’s longer than my usual posts.)

Introduction. School voucher proposals gained traction in the late 1980s as part of a broader movement to privatize services previously delivered by government through its employees. Unlike the privatization program undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in England, in which public enterprises were sold off to the private sector, relieving government of further responsibility for their operation, in the United States privatization referred to the practice of contracting out delivery of government’s programmatic responsibilities to for-profit or non-profit third-party surrogates. Enthusiasm for this method of public service delivery led to a significant expansion of such practices, generating mixed results depending upon the service involved and the adequacy of government oversight. Voucher programs allowing parents to enroll their children in participating private schools of their choice, and to pay the tuition in full or in part with a government-issued voucher, have become one of the more contentious elements of the larger privatization agenda.

Enthusiasm for a market-based approach to schooling received impetus from a 1990 study by John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.  Although several researchers subsequently challenged the data and methodology used in that study, which painted a grim picture of America’s schools, fewer critics initially took issue with their definition of “effective schooling,” which was to be measured against academic criteria only. For Chubb and Moe and those who agreed with their prescription for school privatization, the mission of the schools was limited to imparting competency in the math, science and language skills deemed crucial to economic self-sufficiency and America’s ability to succeed in the global marketplace. Only later did criticism of that premise become a major point of controversy between proponents and opponents of school vouchers.

Philosophy and Partisanship. At its intractable extremes, the school voucher debate is a conflict between two long-standing elements of the American political tradition: the commitment to personal choice and individual freedom, on the one hand, and an equally compelling belief in the importance of a common civic infrastructure and collective interests on the other. Debate over vouchers has become so contentious in large measure because it reflects the tension between these largely incompatible political priorities.

Rather than debating whether public schools are as deficient as some have portrayed them, and if so, in what respects, or debating the merits of one reform measure over another, the policy issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly-controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to that of funder, enabling families to use a specified number of taxpayer dollars to buy educational services in the marketplace.

Initial support for school vouchers came from several interest groups: Catholics desiring financial support for their parochial schools; political libertarians opposed to government control of education on ideological grounds; business interests concerned about public schools’ ability to produce a skilled workforce; and the Christian Right, which had advocated for Protestant prayer and religious instruction in the public schools and had been rebuffed by the Supreme Court in a series of cases begining in 1962, when Engel v. Vitale struck down the practice of official prayer in public school classrooms. These constituencies were, and are, largely aligned with the Republican Party, while the most reliably anti-voucher interest groups— public educators, especially teachers’ unions; the African-American community; and civil libertarians—represent important Democratic constituencies. Voucher programs have thus become a partisan issue. (Kennedy 2001) The political dimension of the voucher debate has been underscored by the very active role taken by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate lobbying organization that supports voucher programs. ALEC’s education task forces are funded primarily by libertarian interests, including the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, and the Friedman Foundation. (Shaffer, Ellis & Swensson 2018)

Voucher proponents argue that competition in education leads to better schools at less cost. They point to test results showing that student achievement in private schools has historically been superior to the performance of students attending public schools. Opponents respond that much of the research purporting to compare public and private school outcomes fails to control for major differences in student body composition, including but not limited to parental socio-economic status and educational motivation.

Opponents and even supportive academics also warn of potentially damaging social consequences. John Witte, an educational researcher who evaluated and supported one of the earliest voucher programs, a 1990 experiment in Milwaukee, nevertheless noted that the program led to more segregation in the schools than otherwise would have been the case. (Witte 2000) Other researchers have worried about religious balkanization, since an estimated 80% of the private schools participating in voucher programs are religious. Still others have expressed concern that voucher programs largely abandon the civic mission of the schools. (Covaleskie 2007)

Legal issues. As voucher programs grew, opponents raised both First Amendment and state constitutional concerns, arguing that the use of public funds to pay tuition at religious schools violated both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and state-level prohibitions known as “Blaine Amendments.” The Supreme Court considered the First Amendment arguments in 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That case challenged an Ohio voucher program that affected only the Cleveland City School District. In 1999 and 2000, 82% of the schools participating in the Cleveland program were religiously affiliated, and 96% of the students using the vouchers were enrolled in one of those religious schools. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled for the parents who were challenging the program; however, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court accepted the defense’s argument that the vouchers were payments to the parents, whose choice of religious schools was made freely and voluntarily, and that as a result, the vouchers could not properly be characterized as tax support for the religious schools. Since the choice of school was made by the parents, and the program’s goal of allowing low-income children to escape a failing school system was secular, the Court held that the voucher program did not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

State courts have largely adopted the logic of the Zelman decision, allowing voucher programs to operate despite state constitutional provisions forbidding the payment of state tax dollars to religious institutions. These provisions, commonly called “Blaine Amendments,” were named for Congressman James Blaine, who sponsored a federal constitutional amendment in 1875 that would have forbidden public funding of religious schools. Blaine’s amendment was seen as an effort to prevent government from supporting the Catholic schools that had originally been established in response to Protestant bible-reading in public school classrooms.  Blaine’s effort at a federal amendment failed, but thirty-eight states subsequently added such provisions to their state constitutions. In sixteen states where Blaine Amendments seemed likely to preclude judicial approval of voucher programs, so-called “neo-vouchers” have used tax credits to circumvent the problem; the subsidies have been deemed “tax reductions” rather than direct spending. Arizona is the most prominent state employing this tactic; its Supreme Court upheld the state’s “tax credit scholarships” in 1998. In two states, Massachusetts and Michigan, both vouchers and neo-vouchers have been held to violate those states’ constitutions. (Davis 2016)

Performance. Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has cast doubt on the educational benefits promised by voucher proponents. (Dynarski & Nichols 2017) Public school students who received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored more poorly on reading and math tests when compared to similar students who remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large, and the results could not be explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers had transferred out of above-average public schools. According to a Brookings Institute overview of available research, a Louisiana public school student who was average in math (at the 50th percentile) and began attending a private school using a voucher declined to the 34th percentile after one year. Students in third, fourth, or fifth grades had a steeper decline, to the 26th percentile. A student at the 50th percentile in reading declined to about the 46th percentile. In Indiana, a student who had entered a private school with a math score at the 50th percentile declined to the 44th percentile after one year. Earlier studies of voucher programs had shown more mixed results when measured by test scores, with scores improving for some students in some places, and failing to improve for other students in other places.

In January, 2018, The Wall Street Journal analyzed data on Milwaukee’s program, the nation’s oldest, and found that the city’s 29,000 voucher students, “on average, have performed about the same as their peers in public schools on state exams.”

A variety of explanations have been offered for the continued lack of evidence that vouchers improve student performance. Among the theories: Public schools have improved more than private ones since the early 1990s; business interests, often lacking background in education, have established schools they are ill-equipped to run; before vouchers, private school classrooms were occupied by children from more privileged backgrounds, and test scores tend to correlate highly with parental income. To date, no consensus has formed around any of these explanations.

Indiana’s results are particularly concerning, because the state has the nation’s largest, and arguably least restrictive, voucher program. Initial enrollment caps have been abandoned, as has the rule that children would not be eligible for a voucher unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. (The initial justification for vouchers was to allow poor children to leave failing public schools.) The program is no longer limited to poor children; recent research suggests that nearly a third of Indiana’s voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies. (Shaffer, Ellis & Swensson 2018)

Civic Dimension. If communities are created and sustained by the things we have in common, by mutual engagements that build social capital, it is particularly important to consider how overarching values and civic commitments are transmitted, supported and reinforced in a society as heterodox as that of the United States. The public schools have traditionally been seen as important to the forging of social solidarity, and have long been regarded as a public good. The public schools play a major role in introducing students who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds to each other and to America’s civic aspirations. To date, there are no research studies comparing public and private school performance in transmitting civic knowledge or success in encouraging civic behaviors.

Voucher proponents will generally not dispute the classification of education as a public good and except for the most ideological libertarians among them, do support a role for the state: the role of funder. Where they differ from proponents of a strong public education system is on the identity of the provider of educational services. Privatization proponents argue that the market can and should provide the education services and that government should enable individual families to purchase them. On the theoretical level, the voucher debate is one more instance of the tension between the libertarian belief in the efficacy of markets and the primacy of individual choice, and the more communitarian preference for mechanisms that encourage social cohesion.

Funding and Oversight. Education in the United States is a function specifically assigned to the states, and funding for public education has consistently been a major state-level budget item. Given state educational systems’ dependence upon the fiscal health and tax revenues of their home states, school funding and institutional quality across the country has been uneven. Voucher programs must be funded out of those same state budgets, and opponents of those programs charge that they are siphoning off funds desperately needed by the public schools. In Indiana, the state with the country’s largest voucher program, state support for vouchers in 2016-17 totaled 146.1 million dollars; between 2011 and 2017, the state spent 520 million dollars. Public school administrators assert that these are funds that would otherwise have gone to the state’s public schools, while advocates for voucher programs insist that the programs actually save the state money.

The fiscal impact of vouchers, and the veracity of the dueling claims, is difficult to assess for several reasons. Differences in the way in which states construct their programs means that impacts vary from state to state. Voucher proponents’ claim that vouchers save taxpayers money is based upon the fact that most vouchers are issued for amounts that are less than the per pupil cost of educating a child in the state’s public schools. Since the money that follows the child is less than the cost incurred by the public system to educate that child, the public school retains the difference. That claim, however, overlooks two reasons why such savings are more theoretical than real: first, a growing number of students enrolled in voucher programs were never in the public system. Second, there is not a one-to-one reduction of public school expense when a student leaves. For example, if one or two students leave a class of 25, the school system must still provide a teacher, a classroom and supplies for the 23 who remain. The school system must continue to maintain its facilities and pay sufficient personnel to conduct necessary administrative functions. It is only when large numbers of children take vouchers and depart that school districts can realize savings by closing buildings, consolidating classes and firing teachers. Thus far, there has been little to no credible research on the actual fiscal effects of the various iterations of voucher and neo-voucher programs on public school systems.

This lack of research is at least partially due to a lack of data. Oversight of voucher programs by most states has been minimal. Despite the large amounts of money involved, private schools accepting vouchers have not generally been subject to reporting requirements, either curricular or fiscal. In Louisiana, independent reporting found many religious schools teaching creationism in science class and using grossly inaccurate, religiously proselytizing texts in history. In Ohio, a 1999 investigation by the Akron Beacon Journal found school choice legislation had been developed as a quid pro quo for campaign contributions and documented improper political behavior by a local businessman who then established private schools specifically to take advantage of the opportunity created by the legislation. His schools generated 16 million dollars from vouchers in the 1999-2000 academic year; the students who attended his schools were subsequently found to perform more poorly than those in the public schools. In Florida, the Miami News Times won an award for its expose of a voucher program for children with physical and learning disabilities; the paper reported safety violations, physical abuse, frequent relocations, a lack of curriculum, and virtually no state oversight.

Conclusion. The combination of cutbacks to public schools, reports of malfeasance by voucher schools, and the emergence of data undercutting the claim that privatization would improve student performance has dampened much of the initial enthusiasm for school vouchers; however, the programs still have substantial political support. It remains to be seen whether that support can be maintained, and whether private schools accepting vouchers can improve their results sufficiently to justify continuation of these educational experiments.

 

References

 Covaleskie, J.F. 2007. “What Public? Whose Schools?” Educational Studies. Vol.42, #1.

Davis, Carl. 2016. “State Tax Subsidies for Private K-12 Education.” Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy. October.

Dynarski, Mark and Austin Nichols. 2017. “More findings about school vouchers and test scores, and they are still negative.” Economic Studies at Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports. Vol. 2, #18, July 13.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. 2001. “Privatizing Education: The Politics of Vouchers.” Phi Delta Kappan. Vol. 82, Number 6. February.

Shaffer, Michael B., John G. Ellis and Jeff Swensson. 2018. “Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy”  AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. Vol. 14, No. 4 Winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voucher Programs and the Constitutional Ethic

with Cullen Merritt

ABSTRACT

America’s public schools have not been exempt from the enthusiasm for “privatization” and contracting-out that has characterized government innovations over at least the past quarter century. A number of the issues raised by school voucher programs and to a lesser extent charter schools mirror the management and efficacy questions raised by privatization generally; however, because public education is often said to be “constitutive of the public,” using tax dollars to send the nation’s children to private schools implicates the distinctive role of public education in a democratic society in ways that more traditional contracting arrangements do not. We explore the unique role of primary and secondary public schools in forging a broad consensus about the nature and importance of America’s constitutional ethic, and growing concerns that vouchers, in particular, are failing to address, let alone facilitate, an ethic of citizenship.

INTRODUCTION

Concerns about failing schools, especially in America’s poor urban neighborhoods, have triggered a number of reform efforts, including voucher programs in which government agencies issue certificates to parents who use them to enroll their children in a participating school of the parent’s choice. Schools are paid a predetermined amount for each voucher received (Levin 2001). The vouchers are used at private schools, the majority of which are religiously affiliated. In most programs, vouchers are awarded through a lottery system, in which eligible students—usually but not always determined on the basis of socioeconomic status—are pooled and recipients are chosen at random (Peterson et al. 1998).

Proponents argue that vouchers create a market-based educational system in which schools must compete for students, a process they believe incentivizes innovation and positive academic outcomes. (Levin and Belfield 2005). That belief is based upon economic models of supply and demand in which markets have been shown to benefit consumers; it ignores, however, both the civic mission of public education and the other ways in which education differs from ordinary consumer goods.

Voucher programs have generated acrimonious policy debates as well as a number of lawsuits. The debates are largely between those who believe that education is basically another variety of consumer good, in this case a set of skills preparing young people to enter the job market, and those who argue that education is also an important public good (Carnoy et al. 2003), and that private schools, particularly religious ones, are ill-equipped to fulfill education’s public mission.

TRANSMITTING THE CONSTITUTIONAL ETHIC

The civic mission of public schools includes, at a minimum, the teaching of America’s history and the transmittal of the country’s core constitutional values. Those values guide appropriate individual participation in a democratic polity; even more importantly, a sound and accurate civics education provides students with an understanding of the genesis and evolution of the rules that shape and constrain public service in the United States, and provide a standard against which to measure the performance of public officials and the bona fides of those who ask for their votes.  At its best, civics education transmits the philosophical premises which undergird the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, premises which require allegiance to a particular code of conduct for citizens and public servants alike. That code defines the public good as essentially secular and rights-driven, and situates public service in a world that is increasingly multi-sectoral, multi-cultural, and international in scope.  (Kennedy & Schultz, 2010) The public mission of the schools thus requires them to teach students about this country’s approach to and experience with the principles of democratic self-governance–what Kennedy and Schultz have called the Constitutional Ethic.

The politics of liberal democracies is the politics of faction, as Madison clearly understood. Individuals have economic interests, social goals, and political and religious beliefs that are affected by public policies and that motivate political behavior. When they lack a common understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of America’s approach to governance and fail to form an ethical commitment to those common undertakings, a diverse polity inevitably fragments into tribal components contending for power and influence.  One of the concerns voiced by voucher program opponents is the participation in such programs of religious schools grounded in a wide variety of beliefs that conflict with important constitutional principles. Many of these schools teach students that the First Amendment does not require separation of church and state, and that biblical commands (for example, that women should be submissive and homosexual citizens shunned) take precedence in the public arena over jurisprudence confirming the constitutionality of very different civic imperatives. Opponents of voucher programs also point out that the racial segregation that has re-emerged as a result of some voucher programs (Witte 2000) is both socially undesirable and violative of America’s Constitutional Ethic.

During the 2013-14 academic year, ten percent of students in grades K-12 attended private schools, and those private schools comprised twenty-five percent of all schools within the United States (U.S. Dept. of Education). Just under eleven percent of these private schools, however, are nonsectarian; the remainder are religious. Catholic schools account for just over fifty-four percent of the nation’s parochial schools (U.S. Dep’t of Education). A growing but indeterminate number are fundamentalist Protestant schools that are reportedly teaching creationism, asserting a Christian biblical foundation for the U.S. Constitution, portraying evolution as an evil doctrine and using textbooks published by religious organizations that scholars criticize as wildly inaccurate. (https://www.sheilakennedy.net/2017/10/footing-the-bill-for-proselytizing/) In most voucher programs, parents can choose to enroll their children in any of them.

Challenges to the constitutionality of providing government funding to religious schools were resolved, albeit not without criticism from legal scholars, when the Supreme Court decided Zellman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. Then- Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that financial assistance via vouchers should not be considered a subsidy to religious schools, because the voucher is provided to individuals, allowing them to “exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious,” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), 663). According to Rehnquist, the fiction that the vouchers go to the parents (in most states, the parent chooses the school to which the voucher is sent, but is never actually given possession of the voucher) “the circuit between government and religion was broken, and the Establishment clause was not implicated.” Similar reasoning has doomed challenges brought under state laws prohibiting the use of public funds for parochial or other religious institutions. See e.g., Anderson v. Town of Durham, 2006; Meredith v. Pence, 984 N.E.2d 1213 (Ind. 2013), 1217).

Research studies evaluating outcomes of the various voucher programs now in effect have focused upon academic achievement, the consequences of diverting education funds from public schools in order to support private and religious ones, and a variety of social equity issues including the racial and socio-economic identitites of voucher recipients. (CITATIONS) There has been little to no research investigating the impact of voucher programs on civic knowledge and cohesion, or any effort to measure their effect on the transmittal of the constitutional ethic.

 

A MODEST PROPOSAL

Given existing case law, it is unlikely that voucher programs will be ruled unconstitutional or otherwise illegal, and despite the growing number of negative evaluations of their academic outcomes, such programs continue to enjoy considerable political support. Assuming that private and religious schools will continue educating approximately ten percent of the American school-age population for the foreseeable future, lawmakers should, at a minimum, condition receipt of government funding on the schools’ obligation to fulfill the civic mission we expect public schools to fulfill. At present, however, there is no generally accepted understanding of the nature or importance of that civic mission, and no standards or procedures for assessing whether individual schools are creating knowledgable, responsible American citizens familiar with and prepared to observe the constitutional ethic.

In the following two sections, we supplement our definition of the Constitutional Ethic and suggest how government might ensure compliance with a requirement that it be taught.

The Constitutional Ethic

The U.S. Constitution is the basis of America’s legal system and civic culture; as it has operated over the years, it has shaped a distinctive value system, a framework within which Americans make public policy and operate our common institutions. Elected and appointed officials take an oath to uphold that constitutional system, an oath that implicitly obliges them to understand its most basic and important characteristics. Both citizens and policymakers need to know not just that the U.S. has a government of checks and balances, but why the system was constructed that way.

At its most basic, adherence to the Constitutional Ethic requires that American citizens, especially but not exclusively public officials and others in positions of authority, act in ways that are consistent with the basic premises of the country’s governing systems, and avoid acting in ways that would undermine them. For example, respect for due process   guarantees would seem to rule out drone strikes on persons–especially but not exclusively Americans–who have not been afforded legal process to determine guilt or innocence. Respect for government’s obligation to treat citizens equally would seem to rule out efforts to marginalize members of minorities, or refuse them access to the institutional benefits enjoyed by other citizens. Respect for the right to vote, one of American citizens’ most fundamental rights, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from vote suppression tactics or other partisan “dirty tricks.” Respect for the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from attempts to censor ideas of which some people disapprove.

Maintaining the integrity of a constitutional system requires broad citizenship education and civic participation consistent with the values of that system. As Keith Whittington has argued, leaving constitutional compliance to the courts is both empirically and normatively problematic. (Whittington, The Good Society pg. 60) Constitutional rules give rise to conventions, norms and customs that should guide American political behavior. As Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Foundation has written, increasing young people’s “informed engagement” in our national life requires school-based civic education. “After all, understanding and actively participating in our civic life was one of the principal missions given to American schools from the very beginning.” (https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/85/8b/858b7e5d-c538-42e2-ae78-24471dce73d7/ccny_creview_2011_civic.pdf )

Regulatory and Monitoring Proposals

The nature and extent of state oversight is a key, and often contentious, consideration when states enact voucher programs.  Typically, private schools participating in voucher programs must comply with regulations regarding health and safety, but requirements for compliance with other standards, such as teaching certification, curriculum, accreditation, anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, number of school days, and recordkeeping and reporting vary by state.  No voucher program of which we are aware imposes standards for civics education on participating schools. Because the civic mission of the nation’s schools is so fundamental to the continued operation of American democratic institutions, we propose that inclusion of a robust civics education curriculum be a condition of voucher program participation.

Ideally, private schools accepting vouchers would integrate curriculum content from the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program within their curricula.  Developed in 1987, the We the People education program is administered by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education program; it was adopted by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution as the principal education program of the federal Constitution’s bicentennial.  The curriculum promotes civic competence and responsibility among elementary, middle, and high school students through “an innovative course of instruction in the history and principles of the U.S. constitutional democracy.”  Through the curriculum, students gain insight into (1) the philosophical and historical foundation of the American political system, (2) how the framers created the Constitution, (3) how the Constitution has evolved to further the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, (4) how the values and principles embodied in the Constitution shaped American institutions and practices, (5) the rights protected by the Bill of Rights, and (6) the challenges the American constitutional democracy may face in the twenty-first century.

Multiple studies have found that students who have participated in the We the People program score significantly higher on tests of civic knowledge compared to their peers, especially in the areas of understanding and respect for the rule of law, political attentiveness, civic duty, community involvement, and commitment to government service, among others (e.g., Leming 1996; Owen and Schroeder 2017; Owen Schroeder, and Riddle 2016; Owen 2015a; Owen 2015b).  Participating voucher schools in states electing not to adopt the We the People curriculum would be allowed to develop their own civics education curricula, or to select another existing program, subject to evaluation and approval by the state’s board of education.

It is one thing to require that schools participating in state voucher programs provide adequate and accurate civics education, assuming that such a requirement is  politically feasible. Ensuring that the schools comply with that requirement is another, especially since many states have exhibited a startling laxity in monitoring compliance even with basic health and safety requirements. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/education/os-florida-school-voucher-investigation-1018-htmlstory.html

At a minimum, private schools participating in voucher programs should be required to demonstrate compliance with applicable civics education regulations by maintaining  records documenting class participation in the civics curriculum in applicable grade levels on a yearly basis.  Schools should also report student performance in civics-related courses.

CONCLUSION

Acceptance of a voucher by a private school should be subject to that school’s compliance with certain basic requirements. At a minimum, school buildings should meet relevant code requirements and fire safety standards; teachers should be able to offer evidence that they are equipped to teach their subject matter; and the school should both teach and model foundational constitutional values and behaviors. Ideally, schools receiving public funds should not be permitted to discriminate on the basis of race,  disability or sexual orientation (religious schools have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of religion in certain situations, although they do not have a right to do so on the taxpayer’s dime) and should be required to afford both students and staff at least a minimum of due process. At present, we are unaware of any voucher program that requires these commitments.

A long line of political theorists have described citizenship as a process of sharing, of forming community around basic values and ethical principles held in common. There are few public issues that do not presuppose a civic understanding of, and broad agreement with, a common purpose, a shared vision of the public good. A constant tension between the public or common good and a commitment to individual rights is a truism of Constitutional law and political debate, and an exploration of that tension should be an explicit part of any civics curriculum.

A quotation from Stephen Macedo is relevant to this issue of teaching the Constitutional Ethic:

Talk of diversity and difference too often proceeds without taking adequate account of the degree of moral convergence it takes to sustain a constitutional order that is liberal, democratic, and characterized by widespread bonds of civic friendship and cooperation.” (Macedo, 2000, 2)

Voucher proponents define the public purpose to be served by education solely as the achievement of a level of academic competence sufficient to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace. We quarrel with this definition. We argue that schools funded by tax dollars, whether public or private, should be contractually obligated to foster the Constitutional Ethic, and that the public good requires more than the transmittal of literacy and technical knowledge sufficient to support economic growth and individual self-sufficiency. It also requires the creation and perpetuation of a political community steeped in the Constitutional Ethic and prepared to contribute to the process of creating unum from our pluribus.