Nonprofits Transforming Civics Education Worth Celebrating on Presidents Day

Presidents Day was originally a commemoration of George Washington’s birthday. He considered civic virtue to be essential, saying in his famous Farewell Address, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and to Marquis Lafayette that the government “can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form; so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”  

This Presidents Day, Philanthropy Roundtable is celebrating by highlighting donors and organizations that are championing civics education that inform citizens, protect democracy and create a safe, enduring society. 

Equipping Teachers: While schools traditionally incorporate civics education as part of their curriculum, many teachers lack opportunities to gain expertise in civics content or ideas for how to best engage their students with it. Here are two initiatives that are working to fill this gap. 

  • American Civics and History Initiative (ACHI), is an ambitious initiative by three major civic education organizations: the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), the Jack Miller Center (JMC), and the Ashbrook Center. ACHI’s purpose is to reach 680,000 students by training 6,800 teachers in Florida over the next two years. ACHI’s trainings are designed to “empower educators through rich, content-based programs and resources” they can use in the classroom. ACHI would not be possible without the involvement of the Jack Miller Family Foundation, which is funded by Florida-based philanthropist Jack Miller. Miller brought together BRI, JMC and Ashbrook, and now is facilitating ACHI not just by writing checks, but by acting as a partner in the initiative, along with the Marcus Foundation, funded by philanthropist Bernie Marcus. 

    Learn more in the Roundtable’s interview with ACHI’s funders and grantees
  • Georgia Center for Civics Engagement (GCCE), “has been working to help fill gaps in civics education among the state’s young people through programs that promote self-esteem, leadership skills and a sense of responsibility for oneself and the greater community.” First, GCCE uses a train-the-trainer approach in providing quality professional development and curricular resources that are aligned with the state educational standards to enhance quality instruction. Secondly, they provide students with opportunities to participate in simulated governmental proceedings like mock elections, model United Nations and legislative meetings. The success and popularity of GCCE’s programs has inspired other states, including Kansas and Arkansas, to replicate GCCE’s model. 

    Learn more about GCCE by reading the Roundtable’s interview with GCCE’s CEO, Dr. Randell Trammell. 

Student Opportunities: While acquiring civic knowledge is essential, students also need engaging ways to apply their knowledge to the real world. These donors and organizations are partnering to provide students with these experiences:  

  • The National Civics Bee is an annual competition that encourages young Americans to engage in civics and contribute to their communities. Supported by the Daniels Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Civics Bee challenges middle school students to apply their civics knowledge for a chance to win recognition and prizes provided by the local community. The goal is to awaken the possibility that civics engagement can make this country a better place. Instead of being organized by schools, civics bees live at local chambers of commerce who encourage the entire community to get involved in this important effort. 

    Learn more from Daniel’s Fund President and CEO Hanna Skandera on how civics bees can help today’s students get excited about our nation’s history. 
  • JA BizTown, a Junior Achievement USA program (JA USA), blends teacher-led sessions with experiential learning. The fourth through sixth grade students prepare for their JA BizTown experience by participating in a series of classroom lessons where they learn about financial literacy, community and economy, work readiness and business management, all through a civics lens. Each student selects a career, creates a business plan, develops a marketing campaign and elects a mayor. The students then take their newly acquired skills to JA BizTown. At the “town,” which consists of a variety of businesses, a municipal building, a radio station and banks, the students get hands-on experience as employees and consumers by paying rent, buying insurance, depositing paychecks and more. Due to the encouragement of longtime supporter The Marcus Foundation, JA USA added content to their program to increase the civics knowledge and experience for those who participate in JA BizTown programming.  

    You can learn more about JA BizTown and their partnership with The Marcus Foundation here

Building a Healthy Civic Culture: Civic knowledge and skills obtained in the classroom are important, but all citizens also need to be equipped with a mindset to constructively engage with those with whom they disagree. Here are organizations and initiatives focused on this uniting effort. 

  • Braver Angels seeks to unite America by bridging the divide among liberals, conservatives and others by helping these groups understand each other as fellow citizens, beyond the stereotypes. To reduce the “vitriol that poisons our civic culture,” Braver Angels hosts workshops, debates, campus engagement and other positive activities at the grassroots level to form community alliances. The Sumners Foundation is a key supporter of the Braver Angels work in Texas.  

    Read more about Braver Angels and their depolarization efforts here
  • Constitution Drafting Project, created by the National Constitution Center with support from philanthropist Jeff Yass, brought together three teams of leading constitutional scholars in 2020: team libertarian, team progressive and team conservative, to draft and present their ideal constitutions, according to their website. The National Constitution Center later reconvened the teams for a virtual constitutional convention to draft and propose a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The result was five new amendments adopted by representatives from all three teams. The project demonstrates how those of opposing viewpoints can civilly disagree as well as work together to find points of consensus. 

    You can watch the Roundtable’s interview with Jeff Yass, NCC president Jefferey Rosen and the leaders of the respective drafting teams. 

Philanthropy Roundtable believes a robust civics education is essential to promoting and preserving good citizenship, which is crucial for the health and future of our nation. In 1776, future President John Adams warned of the importance of enduring virtue in a letter to his cousin, Zabdiel Adams: 

“The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people, in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers, and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.” 

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