From Classrooms to Communities: Building and Funding Civic Engagement in K-12 Schools

Civic Engagement has been in decline in the United States, and therefore it is important to build educational programs that teach students in K-12 schools how to become civically engaged. The United States now faces issues with governmental trust, a lack of understanding of the machinations of government among citizens, and general polarization.

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December 1, 2023

Inquiry-driven, this project may reflect personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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Abstract— Civic Engagement is the active participation of individuals in their community in order to address issues, make decisions, and contribute to the betterment of their shared environment. This can be done through activism, volunteering, voting, or advocating for causes. Civic Engagement has been in decline in the United States, and therefore it is important to build educational programs that teach students in K-12 schools how to become civically engaged. The United States now faces issues with governmental trust, a lack of understanding of the machinations of government among citizens, and general polarization. It is imperative that all American children are engaged in civic education. This will allow young Americans to be more prepared to participate in government while building their community involvement and general advocacy skills.

Executive Summary

Civic Engagement is an important part of our nation’s democracy, allowing citizens to interact with governmental systems on a daily basis through discussion, activism, and simple community involvement. Despite the importance of civic engagement, young American students often experience their K-12 years without any meaningful civic education. This leaves the next generation unprepared to comprehend and participate in our nation’s democracy. In order to preserve our delicate governing system, it is imperative that civic education programs be widely established and funded throughout the American schooling system. 


Civic Engagement is defined by the American Psychological Association as “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.” A modern example of civic engagement in the United States was the uptick in protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Civic engagement occurs when anyone engages in a discussion or act that concerns or benefits the greater community and, therefore occurs almost every single day. In the past, American citizens enjoyed the benefits of civic engagement from a young age.

Civic engagement began to be taught in American schools as early as the 1800s when public school systems began to form cohesive curriculums. One of the reasons for this was the desire to teach young Americans about a democratic-republican society. Horace Mann, often referred to as the “father of American Education,” once said, “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”

As society progressed and our government became more polarized, civic engagement was seen less and less in K-12 schooling. A Study by the University of Pennsylvania shows that 1 in 4 Americans are unable to name all three branches of government. Civic Engagement has been tossed to the backburner in schools, despite the fact it is the only way to ensure that the American democratic tradition can continue without ruin.

Acknowledging the lack of civic engagement within the American K-12 curriculum, this policy brief aims to propose solutions to revitalize the civic health of our nation. These solutions aim to create a balance between an informative and multifaceted curriculum, recognizing the need for nonpartisan information within American schools. The creation, funding, and promotion of civic resources by nonpartisan organizations and governmental bodies to educational bodies is incredibly important to ensure that civic engagement is revitalized within our school systems.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” With civic curriculums, it can be ensured that future American generations will always be well-equipped to run their own government.

Pointed Summary

  • Civic Engagement and Education has been grossly underfunded and is not properly instructed in most American K-12 schools.
  • This lack of civic education contributes to the lack of governmental understanding demonstrated by many young Americans. 
  • Civic Education allows students to engage with their communities and governments at an early age up until their high school years. When these behaviors are taught in schools, students are more likely to carry on the habit of being civically engaged far into their adult lives.
  • The creation, promotion, and funding of civic education in K-12 schools will decrease polarization, increase governmental understanding, and generally improve social welfare among American communities.


As our society grows more divided through hyperpolarization, it is of the utmost importance that we promote an equitable civic education for all future inheritors of the American Government. In the past several years, it’s been discovered that an alarming number of Americans are unaware of their government and how it functions. As previously mentioned, the study by the University of Pennsylvania also found that 26 percent of people could name the three branches of government in 2016, as opposed to the 31 percent of respondents that could name the three branches in 2011. A study by Johns Hopkins University in 2018 found that half of those surveyed did not know what their state spent the majority of their budget on. Less than 20% could name their state legislator, and one-third couldn’t name their governor. These two studies demonstrate the alarming lack of basic knowledge Americans have about the government, where all decisions have a strong impact on American lives. 

Another issue that makes a better civic education program a necessity is the lack of trust most Americans have in our government. A study published by the Pew Research Center in September 2023 found that 16% of Americans say they fully trust the Washington government to always do the right thing.

This represents a sharp decline in American trust, as in 2022, 20% of Americans said they fully trusted their government. When the study began in 1958, a whopping 73% of Americans held great trust in their government. As political conflicts, economic issues, and populous polarization have grown, American governmental trust has been eroded. Civic engagement programs, with their strong teachings on the essential functions of government and how one can improve their community, may reverse the decline in governmental trust.

Another prevalent issue is the growing polarization of our government. Another study by the Pew Research Center found that Democrats and Republicans are more divided with differing opinions than in the past.

The measure of Americans who presented mostly conservative or mostly liberal viewpoints doubled from 10% to 21% in the past two decades. 92% of Republicans are considered more “right-wing” than the average Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are considered more “left-wing” than the average Republican.

The same study found that beyond the growth of stronger ideologies, strong ideological believers tend to oppose each other more and go as far as to blame government failures on the other party. 43% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats view the opposite party in highly negative terms. This leads to inefficiency within our government as parties blame each other for a presented problem, instead of focusing on bilateral solutions.

Another issue presented in the study is the “echo chambers” created in American society. 63% of consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals said most of their close friends mirrored their political views. People who do not surround themselves with a group who have diverse opinions are likely to believe in the supremacy of their group’s ideas. This not only leads to less effective decision-making but also limits understanding of other viewpoints.

A key part of civic education is teaching students how to engage with those whom they may disagree with. For all of the stated issues, it is entirely relevant that civic education be improved in America.

Current Stances

Currently, many Americans agree that the state of civic education must be improved immediately. According to the American Bar Association, “Pollster Frank Luntz surveyed more than 1,000 Americans and asked what they felt could heal this country’s divides. Among seven solutions, including “less money in politics” and “ranked-choice voting,' ' civic education was the number one choice by a majority across political leanings.” Schools also only spend about 10% of class time teaching social studies, compared to 53% of the time for English and 25% of the time for Math.

The USC Dornsife Center found that the vast majority of parents across all political parties believe in teaching children about how the government works, basic voting rights, the U.S.’s leadership on the world stage, how students can get involved in local government, and the contributions of marginalized groups toward American democracy.

These studies demonstrate that Americans widely agree on the importance of civic engagement. Civic education has the potential to remedy major issues in society, such as polarization. States that already have strong civic engagement curriculums have been found to benefit from these teachings. CAP found that civic engagement rises as certain measures are taken to educate students on civics.

This can include mandating citizenship exams to graduate High School, giving teachers detailed civic lesson plans, making community service a graduation requirement, and increasing the amount of Advanced Placement U.S. Government Classes available to high school students. 

Civic engagement holds incredible importance to the young people of our nation. According to CivXNow, civic education can prompt young people to be involved in their communities, practice voting earlier, and engage more with elected officials. Civic engagement can prompt people to rise from potentially oppressive circumstances, taking their experience to advocate for themselves. As the government is faced with more extensive challenges than ever, it is imperative that they listen to the American people and implement civic education programs across the country. 

Tried Policy

Several state-level policies have been enacted to support civic education. One of the most controversial of these policies has been the mandate that high school students must pass a citizenship test before graduating. As of 2023, 17 states require high schools to pass a similar test given to those becoming citizens of the U.S. This has garnered controversy.

Opponents argue that this test provides an unnecessary barrier to high school graduation. As there are already numerous issues that can prevent a person from graduating, this test can exacerbate their circumstances. Opponents also argue that this test is not a significant indicator of civic knowledge. Many of the questions surround basic tenets of U.S. history, which students can learn quite easily.

The memorization of facts does not constitute a full “civic education,” as it is rare that students will learn to fully apply and involve themselves in government simply from these tests. However, the studying for this test may spark an interest in civics.

Another state-led policy has been the implementation of rigorous civic curriculums. Many states require half a year of civic education, but Idaho and Connecticut have year-long, incredibly comprehensive civic education programs. According to the Colorado Department of Education, one of the state’s only mandated graduation requirements is the completion of a civics and government course. Colorado is a prime example of a civics education done right. Teachers in the state cover American democracy, a citizen’s responsibilities, and how to participate in the public sphere.

The Colorado Department of Education provides teachers with vast materials to properly instruct students. One incredible facet of the Colorado civics program is the implementation of real-world civic engagement. The Judicially Speaking program was started by local judges to walk students through how judges make a typical decision. This program allowed students to be fully immersed in one of the primary governing bodies of the U.S. and understand how laws impact individuals.

The Colorado Civics program is a shining example of a program providing students with resources to prepare them for the real world. Idaho also has an intensive civics program, with students from kindergarten learning their place in American society. According to the Idaho Content Standards for schools, kindergarten students should know about values such as honesty and respect, and third-grade students should be able to identify how officials take office, such as through elections. Idaho’s comprehensive civic education system demonstrates how important it is for students to start to understand civic responsibility at a young age. It should be noted that while Republicans hold a majority in Idaho, Democrats hold the majority in Colorado, showing that there is bipartisan support for these intense Civic Engagement programs.

On a national level, in 2022, Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would expand access to civic education through a $1 billion investment in K-12 and higher education civics curricula. This act planned to give $585 million to state education agencies intending to expand their civics programs and close civic education acts and $50 million to researchers who would evaluate civics and history programs to identify the best instructional methods. This Act was debated over the idea that it promoted critical race theory within high school classrooms, a contested form of education about racism. 

There are several examples of policies that have succeeded in ensuring civic education is available to the public. On a larger scale, the absence of policies regarding civics curriculum is a failure of the education system. These presented policies have succeeded to some extent in promoting community participation, and with the expansion of these policies, it could be ensured that all Americans reap the benefits of civic engagement instruction.

Policy Problem


Some of the most important stakeholders in improving civic education in the United States are the Federal Department of Education and State Departments of Education. The Federal Department of Education collects data on American schools, pushes for attention to educational issues concerning the nation, and generally ensures equal educational access for all students. The Federal Department of Education has the responsibility to help allocate educational funds to states and, therefore, would be vital in providing funding for intensive civic education programs across the country.

This allows for access to quality civic education programs for all students. They also can fund research to help determine the best civic education practices. Finally, the Department of Education can establish and promote national standards for civic education. 

While the Federal Department of Education is extremely important, State Departments of Education are even more instrumental in supporting civic engagement and education programs in the United States. State Education Departments typically set curriculum standards for all schools to follow. They set expectations for what each student should learn in each grade and provide the majority of training for teachers. This allows state education departments to tailor civic materials to educational systems within their state.

While the federal government can create guidelines, the states have the power to control education programs in their respective governing areas and implement real change in civic curriculums.

Several more stakeholders include educational institutions, educators, parents, and students. Educational institutions have the individual duty to promote civic engagement and education outside of the classroom, especially in the case that the state does not provide guidelines surrounding civic engagement.

Educators are able to provide a great classroom environment that can encourage the development of civic-minded behaviors, and parents can do the same at home. Students are the ones who gain the most from the civic curriculum and are, therefore, stakeholders in ensuring that it serves their own needs for the future of our country.

Risks of Indifference

If a multifaceted and comprehensive civic education program is not introduced within American schooling systems, dire circumstances could continue to narrow our nation’s governmental understanding and trust in our federal government. In addition to the aforementioned Pew Research surveys, the Partnership for Public Service and Freedman Consulting found that 56% of people do not or somewhat do not believe that the federal government can be trusted to do what is right.

53% of people felt that the government has a negative impact on the U.S. 67% felt that the government is not transparent, and 63% felt that the government does not listen to the public. These statistics show the incredible distrust Americans have in their government. Without a strong civics program that teaches Americans the exact function of their government and how they can lobby for change, Americans will continue to have negative sentiments directed toward the federal government.

With a negative view of the government, many Americans are unwilling to participate in local, state, and national elections. When Americans feel more pride in their governments, they are more likely to participate, showing their support for certain candidates or lobbying for their own ideals. Without a curriculum designed to promote civic engagement, these issues will not solve themselves. In the current times of mass polarization and incredibly difficult problems, the American population must be educated properly on all civic matters in order to properly make decisions and use their democratic rights.

A lack of civic engagement also creates issues with youth voter participation. According to CIRCLE at Tufts University, while youth voting has increased in recent years, it is still low compared to other turnouts of other age groups. CIRCLE also found that civic engagement can increase youth voting. Without comprehensive civic education, it is possible that young voter apathy will continue to harm American democracy. This will lead to the continued stalling of important legislation as our representatives may not truly reflect their population’s opinions. To promote civic participation through voting in local, state, and national elections, it is important to promote civic education. 

Finally, as civic engagement programs continue to decline, there is a strong possibility that young people will not be as involved in their communities. Many communities are dealing with a diverse array of issues, from racism to gun violence. To help these communities, it is imperative that young people are engaged with their community. CIRCLE noted, “research has shown that communities where young people vote, volunteer, help their neighbors, and belong to groups or associations can be more prosperous and resilient places”.

Young people are more likely to uphold civics within their communities when they are well-educated on the matter. Without civic education, it's possible that communities will continue to suffer from political dismay and issues without any community members working to help solve these issues. Therefore, civic education is important to promote community-based solutions and community involvement.

Nonpartisan Reasoning

 In its essence, civic education is entirely nonpartisan and benefits all political parties. According to Cyngal, 77% of Republicans, 84% of Democrats, and 71% of independents think that civic education is important. 70% of voters agree that civic education is more important now than it was five years ago. In the aforementioned USC Dornsife study, parents across political ideologies agree that civic education is instrumental in a child’s school years. 

Civic education benefits all parties due to its wide range of teachings. Despite common belief, many lessons from civic education are not overtly political. Civic education teaches students how to be properly involved in their community through volunteer service and voicing their opinions. Civic education teaches students the history of our country with a lens focusing on community impact. On a more political side, good civic education does not promote an individual ideology.

It teaches students to get involved in local and state governments in any way possible. Students are taught to participate in the government by voting, lobbying, sharing their opinions, and generally sharing their views. Civic education does not dictate what these views should be but rather educates students on how to share them. Civic education also seeks to give students a basic overview of how their government works, allowing them the resources to participate in it. Finally, civic engagement allows people to understand views that differ from their own.

Studies show that civically educated students are more likely to understand the views of those with whom they may typically disagree. This promotes bipartisan solutions. Civic education does not serve as a vehicle for a specific political ideology but rather protects the general democratic system of the U.S. government. Therefore, civic education promotes democratic participation and community involvement across party lines, promoting nonpartisanship. 

Policy Options

Passing the “Civics Secure Democracy” Act

One important piece of legislation that has been stalled in the past years is the “Civics Secure Democracy Act”. As previously mentioned, the act would provide $1 billion annually for civic programs. $585 million would be given to state education agencies on a need-based system, $200 million would be given to non-profit organizations working competitively to provide access to civic education, $150 million would be given to higher education institutions supporting civics, $50 million would be given competitively to researchers finding the best methods for civic education, and $15 million would be used to start a new Prince Hall Civics Fellowship program, where educators would be awarded for their commitment to civics. 

This act is incredibly important in prioritizing civic education as it has already been introduced into Congress but has been stalled due to polarization and other unforeseen issues in the past few years. This bill is widely supported by many historical societies, educational institutions, and civics programs. This bill works as an expansion of the already existing CIVICS Act and the USA Civics Act, building upon a framework of legislation that will improve our civic education.

The passing of this bill would bring national attention to the issue of declining civic education while promoting the increasing instruction of civic engagement in K-12 schools. This bill is unique in that it does not only fund higher education civics courses but rather funds all types of schools in their pursuit of civically educating students. When civic curriculums are introduced at a young age, students are more likely to develop habits regarding these curriculums, such as voting and governmental participation. This is extremely valuable in educating the next generation of American citizens.

Unfortunately, buried in the year-end omnibus spending bill, Congress delivered a mere $23 million dollars for K-12 civics education, far short of the $1 Billion dollars requested in the Act. This only exacerbates the importance of a better, more robust act that needs to be passed in Congress. 

National K-12 Civic Curriculum Guidelines for State Departments of Education

Another important aspect of promoting civic education is the creation of a national K-12 civic curriculum that can be distributed to state departments of education. The Federal Department of Education has the power to suggest curriculums to state education agencies. To promote civic education, the Federal Department of Education should work with professors, organizations, researchers, parents, educators, and students to create different civic curriculums aimed at all K-12 grades. 

These curriculums can be modeled after pre-existing, successful state curriculums. This will allow different states to use each other’s resources, which have been shown to produce positive results for students. Some of this funding could be diverted from the general Department of Education’s budget, specifically the portion going to K-12 education. Creating a national suggested curriculum would allow for states to easily adopt a civics education for their students. The suggested curriculum would provide a consistent baseline of civic knowledge and skills across the country. Despite the national curriculum being available, it is imperative that state and local educational bodies adapt the civic materials to their own needs.

The curriculums should serve as outlines for states to build upon using local materials, such as local organizations or local community opportunities. Finally, this standardized curriculum would allow states to understand what areas they may be falling behind in. It is important to emphasize that this national curriculum would not be mandatory for states but would serve as a vehicle to promote civic education within schools across the nation as the curriculum is a suggestion. Despite the status of this national curriculum as a suggestion, it would serve as a  valuable reminder for states to adopt these civic programs. 

Funding For State Civic Curricula

While the availability of a national curriculum is incredibly important to give states a building block for civic education, it is ultimately up to the states to plan and execute their own state-specific civic education programs. This is why the Department of Education and other U.S. Government agents should help fund civic education programs. This money should be distributed on a need-basis, where states lacking civic education programs should be prioritized in order to create an equitable playing field across the nation. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, when evaluating state standards of civic education, twenty states ranked inadequately. 

These states that have very few established civic engagement programs should be prioritized when funding is distributed. State Departments of Education should also be encouraged to divert a portion of their budget to civic education. The Federal Department of Education could first gather these funds from the general K-12 education budget, as civic engagement is a pressing issue that should be promoted immediately. Federally Funded Education Programs could also begin to teach civics, using their funding for the instruction of civic engagement.

The U.S. Federal Government could put taxpayer money towards civic programs, and encourage states to do the same with various state taxes. Subsidies on various sectors, from energy to technology, can also help pay for civic education programs across the United States. As estimated in the “Civics Secure Democracy” Act,  around $600 million would be able to fund the establishment of these programs federally. States would also be expected and encouraged to fund these programs, as they would see more community and general governmental involvement from their citizens as civic education grows. Overall, funding is a great necessity to get civic education programs across the country off of the ground. 

Promotion of Grants, Awards, and Opportunities Related to Civic Engagement 

One final essential way to promote civic education is by expanding grants, awards, and opportunities related to civic engagements. These grants could also come from the Department of Education’s budget. These grants would honor educators, researchers, and education institutions dedicated to promoting and researching civics.

These grants would be distributed by various committees from around the federal government, most notably the Department of Education. Teachers could receive grants for exemplary teaching in civics, researchers could receive grants for studies on the effectiveness of civics and how to approve civic education, and higher education institutions could earn grants for dedicated work toward improving civic education. 

The Federal Government and State Governments could also fund awards to give to students for involvement in civics. As students have the most stake in their civic education, students who involve themselves outside of school in civic engagement activities should be honored through numerous awards. These awards will provide incentives for students to participate in civic engagement activities and grow their skill sets. In addition to possible opportunities, these awards will allow our students to fully benefit from civic education.

The awards will promote civics among students while rewarding positive involvement and engagement inside and outside of the classroom environment. Awards can be established at any level, but the national suggested curriculum should promote the creation of statewide and local awards awarded on a variety of different merits and levels. These awards do not have to only be for participation but can be given for service, art, essays, or countless other materials related to Civic Engagement.

Along with awards, countless opportunities are necessary to facilitate a robust civic education across the nation. Using extra funding dedicated to classroom civic education, schools should invest in other traditional activities that teach civics outside of the classroom. This could include debate, policy analysis, supplementary government simulations, volunteer work, activism, or countless other activities that teach students about civics. States should be encouraged to expand programs like State Legislature Page positions for high school students that teach students first-hand about government.

Schools should also promote free speech and demonstration on their campuses. The funding for these activities can be taken from general civic education budgets, as outside learning helps supplement inside-the-classroom concepts. States developing civic education programs should also be encouraged to start initiatives like the Judicially Speaking program in Colorado, which connected students with local judges to learn about laws. Connecting students with local professionals who can educate them on civics is imperative in notifying students of future possible professions and showing the importance of civics in everyday life. Overall, numerous opportunities are necessary to supplement a well-rounded civic education. 

Conclusions and Recommendations

In its current state, American Democracy cannot survive if civic education is not widely administered in the K-12 classrooms. The federal government is faced with extremely low trust rates, growing misunderstandings about the government’s role and machinations in our society, and ever-divisive partisanship. While it may feel like there is no catch-all solution for these problems, it is essential that the federal government creates a framework for all future generations to learn the inner workings of their government, understand community involvement, and participate in local governing bodies.

This education is one based on civics. Civic education will empower American youth of all ages to advocate for various causes, express their opinions, and generally be involved in local affairs concerning all subjects. Numerous studies have shown that civic education positively impacts students and communities. It has been a bipartisan effort to create better systems of civic education, and parents of all ideologies support this additional curriculum for their children. 

Civic education in the United States can be bolstered through the passing of the “Civics Secure Democracy” Act, an act that has been stalled in Congress in recent years. This Act would provide sufficient funding to civic education networks across different states while continuing to supply researchers with money to understand the best way to conduct civic education and provide funds to civic nonprofit organizations. Another way to promote civic education is through the creation of national guidelines for states to use when crafting civic curriculums.

These guidelines would make it easier for states to formulate full civic programs, allowing programs to open faster to schools. These guidelines would serve as suggestions rather than mandates, meaning states could create more robust civic programs. Funding through the National Department of Education is also essential to ensure that all states have the funds to establish civic curricula. Finally, promoting grants, awards, and opportunities for civic learning will enable more students to be involved in civics across the nation. 

Civics are essential to improving the relationship between the American government and its citizens immediately. To ensure that American democracy can continue to thrive in the face of imminent problems, it is imperative that the federal government build and fund civic engagement.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Paul Kramer, Carlos Bindert, Gwen Singer, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Programming Department within the Institute.

Works Cited
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Taylor Beljon-Regen

Distinguished Fellow, Fall 2023

Taylor Beljon-Regen is from Los Angeles California and is a passionate advocate for issues relating to civic engagement and education, the opioid crisis, antisemitism in America, and abortion access.

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