Democrats on the State Board of Education rejected an effort to base Colorado civics education on the conservative American Birthright program.
Republican State Board member Debora Scheffel had proposed tossing the civics standards developed by a committee of teachers, community members, and other experts and starting over using American Birthright as a base.
American Birthright is a project of the Civics Alliance, a coalition whose mission statement says it formed to oppose a “new civics” more centered on global citizenship and activism than on understanding American ideals and responsibilities.
“American Birthright teaches about the expansion of American liberty to include all Americans, the contributions that Americans from every walk of life have made to our shared history of liberty, and America’s championship of liberty throughout the world,” the website says. “Students will learn of heroes of liberty such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan.”
Colorado’s social studies standards got a D rating from the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. Scheffel, who is dean of the school of education at Colorado Christian University, said American Birthright draws heavily from Massachusetts and Florida social studies standards that get much higher marks.
While Fordham has not rated American Birthright, Scheffel said she encounters many college students who lack basic information about American governance, and she believes the program offers more rigorous content and is more comprehensive than current state standards.
“I just feel that our students are not learning what they need to learn,” Scheffel said.
Colorado is updating its civics standards to comply with a bipartisan 2021 law that called for strengthening students’ understanding of the basic workings of government, as well as how to engage with public officials and in public process. It’s part of a broader social studies standards update occurring amid a polarized national debate about the teaching of history, gender, and race.
Republicans have been successful in changing some aspects of the standards, such as shaping genocide standards to emphasize the dangers of socialism, despite Democrats holding the majority on the board, but on Wednesday, Democrats quickly rejected several Republican amendments to the civics standards.
“These standards are too extreme for the state of Colorado,” said Democratic board member Lisa Escárcega, explaining her vote against the American Birthright standards.
American Birthright calls out project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, social emotional learning, current events, civic engagement, and any teaching that promotes diversity, equity, inclusion, or social justice as harmful to learning. Escárcega said she finds that parents value many of these things and wouldn’t want them to go away.
Republican board member Joyce Rankin countered that students aren’t getting the grounding in facts they need to engage in more advanced thinking. Rankin described the results of word searches she had done on Colorado civics standards and American Birthright.
American Birthright mentions the Constitution 111 times, compared with 24 times in the Colorado civics standards, the word God 12 times as opposed to never in the Colorado standards, the word flag 12 times as opposed to once, and the word American 374 times compared with just 68 times.
“You don’t even have to know the sentence they’re in,” Rankin said. “It tells a lot about where our students are right now.”
Board Chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat, said American Birthright wasn’t right for Colorado.
“There are a couple ways we are dishonest to kids in what we teach, and sometimes it’s what we say and write and sometimes it’s what we don’t say and write,” she said. “I see this proposal like Swiss cheese. It’s not all bad, but it’s full of holes.
“And we would have a lot of work to fill those holes. I also suspect it’s full of curriculum, and we can’t do that.”
Standards lay out what Colorado students are supposed to know and what Colorado schools are supposed to teach, but under Colorado law, school districts have broad discretion to set their own curriculum.
After the defeat of the American Birthright proposal, Rankin proposed her own amendments that were also voted down on party lines.
Rankin sought to remove references to civil disobedience as a method of achieving policy change, replace references to developing “active community members” with references to “informed, knowledgeable community members,” and strike the Great Law of Peace from a list of foundational documents.
The Great Law of Peace governed the Iroquois Confederacy and represents perhaps the oldest example of participatory democracy. It was recorded on wampum belts and in oral history. Some historians argue that Indigenous models of self-governance and women’s rights gave inspiration to the Founding Fathers and later the women’s suffrage movement, along with Enlightenment ideas from Europe. Benjamin Franklin, in particular, published pamphlets on the government of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Rankin said the Great Law of Peace doesn’t belong in the standards because it’s a “legend.”
“It was passed down by word of mouth,” she said. “Have you ever played the game telephone where you start something and it goes around in a circle and it comes back to the first person and it’s nothing like they originally had? We don’t know how much of that legend is accurate.”
She went on to say, “I just think we need history. We are from Europe. We began that way.”
Board member Steve Durham said he researched the voter records of teachers, parents, and community members who volunteered to work on the civics standards and believes they acted with bias.
“Would you care to guess the political affiliation of the 37 members?” he asked his colleagues. Other board members said they would not care to guess. Nonetheless, he proceeded to tell the board that the standards committee members were “2 to 1 Democrats.”
State education officials do not ask about party affiliation on the application to serve on a standards committee, and board member Rebecca McClellan said she was concerned Durham had carried out “surveillance” of committee members.
“I admit to being biased. My politics are well known,” Durham said. “I just wish they had the same honesty to admit where they stand.”
The Colorado State Board of Education now has adopted standards related to Holocaust and genocide studies, personal financial literacy, media literacy, and civics. Next month, it is set to vote on revisions related to a 2019 bill that called for a more inclusive approach to social studies instruction, including more perspectives from people of color and LGBTQ Americans, and possibly finalize the standards in their entirety.
The proposed inclusion of gay, lesbian, and transgender perspectives has drawn thousands of emails and comments in favor and in opposition, and the standards committee already has removed many references.
That discussion is expected to be contentious. It’s also scheduled to occur after the November election but before new board members are seated. The election will add two new board members and could change party control of the State Board.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.