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Familiar fault lines develop in approach to Washington civics education

Student photos capture the details of Ms. D-B's classroom.
Student photos capture the details of Ms. D-B's classroom.

In concept, civics education enjoys that rarest of qualities: bipartisan support. Its proponents include Washington’s progressive governor, Jay Inslee, conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and many other people from varied points on the political spectrum.

But in the last couple of years, as the people who make policy see elections, demographics and history through drastically different lenses, a kind of backlash has formed. Some state legislatures and governors are moving to limit what can be talked about in civic education and social studies courses.

All of this is reflective of where we are now as an electorate. Despite the non-partisan aims of civic education advocates, some of the people who decide the boundaries of a curriculum are political figures, and they make political decisions.

The architecture of Washington’s civic education strategy is pretty similar to that of other states: The state sets basic requirements, and the details of implementation are left up to school districts.

“The legislation sort of outlines what districts are responsible for providing, and then districts get to make that choice as to how they do that,” says Jerry Price, a former social studies teacher who supervises Washington’s social studies program for public schools. “What it means for social studies in Washington state is that districts have leeway to make choices as far what civics curriculum or materials they choose to bring into the classroom.”

When Washington’s current civics ed law was under consideration in 2018, only one person signed up to testify against it: the then-superintendent of the Rearden-Edwall school district in western Spokane County. Legislative records say he was concerned that state guidelines for civic ed would reduce local control.

But civic education advocate Margaret Fisher says what goes on in a high school civics class is still controlled at the local level.

“If you look at the standards, they don’t dictate the curriculum,” Fisher says. “They dictate, you know, here is some content. How are you going to present that content? And teachers have flexibility around that.”

There’s also a role for outside groups. They can provide curriculum materials or guest speakers. The Washington League of Women Voters is active in that area with its “The State We’re In” booklet. Fisher is helping develop a street law program for Spokane Public Schools. On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping a teacher from inviting, for example, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell to share myths about voter fraud.

Fisher says that is a possibility, but she trusts teachers to differentiate between sources and perspectives to give children a comprehensive picture of thorny and complex issues.

“If it’s false information, there’d be some discretion exercised there,” she says. “But if there are different viewpoints, one would hope that the people of different viewpoints could come in and demonstrate that we may disagree, but we can still have a civil conversation around it.”

In other states, there is a struggle brewing over the direction of civic education and who gets to have a hand on the tiller. According to policy analysis website Governing, state lawmakers across the country submitted 120 bills in 2021 and ’22 that sought to change or put boundaries on what can be covered in civics and social studies classes, and what teachers are required to do.

Those fault lines over standards and curriculum have also appeared in the legislature in Olympia.

In January, seven Republican state House members proposed a measure – House Bill 1807 – that would require some focused civics ed instruction in K-through-eight classrooms. The bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Jim Walsh, says he thinks Washington civics teachers are doing a good job. But Walsh also wants to get in front of what he says is a national trend of focusing on negative aspects of the country’s history and development.

“I’d like our civics education to emphasize so many good things in Washington and in the United States, rather than focusing only on criticisms and negative reactions,” Walsh says.

The standards presented in House Bill 1807 in some ways mirror those already in place for high school civics: how government works at federal, state and local levels; history of Washington’s indigenous peoples; and basics of civic engagement.

But unlike the high school standards, 1807 includes a lot of specifics. That includes an emphasis on almost two dozen documents, from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” The bill also bars requiring teachers to attend any training rooted in critical race theory or other concepts conservatives find objectionable.

One point raised by Walsh’s fellow House Education Committee members is whether that kind of specificity carved into state law violates the principle of local control. Walsh says he doesn’t think so.

“The bill still gives a great deal of latitude to the local school districts to make the final form of their civics courses to their choosing,” the lawmaker says.

As an example, House Bill 1807 says teachers can’t be forced to use materials from the New York Times’ “1619 Project” or the book “How to be Anti-Racist.” But Walsh says it doesn’t block districts from using those works.

“Some critics wrongly said that it was banning this course of study of that. Not true,” Walsh says. “We acknowledge that some teachers may want to use controversial material. Okay. But we want to make sure no teacher is compelled to use controversial material.”

Although 1807 and a separate bill that sought to ban critical race theory did not pass this year, Jerry Price says Washington teachers are worried about ruffling feathers in the course of doing their jobs.

“Often they feel like if they bring in a topic that may not be agreed upon by all parties, that they’re going to receive blowback,” Price says. “So we spend a lot of time in our professional developments really talking about strategies for engaging with difficult concepts and conversations.”

Nearly two years into Washington’s renewed focus on civics, Margaret Fisher says she thinks the state is doing very well when it comes to civic education. She hopes there will be more funding and opportunities for teachers to get targeted training on civics topics. And she says the teachers themselves are being surveyed this year to find out how things are going from their perspective.

Rep. Walsh says he will try to pass 1807 again next year. So as Washington teachers and students continue their work in the classroom, debates will continue about what goes in, what’s kept out, and who gets to decide.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.