The Legislature inserted groups tied to right-wing donors into Florida’s new law on civics education

By: - August 22, 2019 7:00 am

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

A little-noticed bill on civics education made its way to passage in the Legislature this spring, as lawmakers were scurrying to finish key legislation and budget issues.

But the four-page civics bill – now a law — was not exactly innocuous.

Based on the language, some out-of-state groups financed by ideological and political-leaning donors have been chosen to consult with Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to review all civics instructional materials, the Florida Phoenix found, raising concerns about the potential for fundamental changes in the way civics is taught.

The groups tapped to give input to the state on civics education include Hillsdale College, a small, private college in Michigan that’s “proud of our roots and identity as a Christian college,” according to the website, and based on news accounts, one of the most conservative colleges in the country.

It’s unclear why, out of the thousands of colleges in the United States, Hillsdale was specifically listed in Florida’s new civics education law.

The college has a connection to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family has helped fund Hillsdale’s endowment, according to The Washington Post. And her brother attended Hillsdale.

The college also has connections with charter schools in Florida, working with “affiliate classical charter schools” that model Hillsdale’s “Barney Charter School Initiative.” The project promotes studies in liberal arts and sciences and the “principles of moral character and civic virtue.”

Another group, the Bill of Rights Institute, was launched in 1999 by the libertarian Koch family and its foundations, which still donate to the nonprofit. The institute outside of Washington, D.C., once was described in The New Yorker as promoting “a conservative slant on the Constitution.” The Institute’s president also taught at Hillsdale College.

In North Carolina in late 2014 and early 2015, the Bill of Rights Institute generated controversy when the state education agency wanted to recommend highly that social studies teachers “use curriculum materials prepared by an institute funded by the conservative Koch family,” according to The News & Observer in Raleigh. The state education agency, at the time, pulled back on the recommendation following public criticism.

A public webinar launches today to provide background and discuss the review of civics instructional materials, as well as the way civics students will be tested.

Richard Corcoran (photo from Wikipedia)
Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran appointed Florida Education Commissioner

Under the law,  Florida’s Education Commissioner has to make recommendations to improve civics education materials and testing by Dec. 31. By Dec. 31, 2020, the Florida Department of Education also will review statewide academic standards – what students are supposed to know — used for civics courses.

Why the changes? Is civics education broken?

Currently, civics instruction in Florida covers everything from the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to the three branches of government, political parties and voting, the significance of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, the concepts of domestic and foreign policy, and the principles of markets, banking and the economy.

So why is a new statewide civics review happening?

Stephen Masyada is director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.

The state education department’s current “benchmarks” for civics education (related to academic standards and what students are expected to learn) “are studiously non-partisan and non-ideological,” Masyada said in written e-mail responses to the Phoenix.

“They cover the foundations of civics without requiring that kids take a particular worldview,” Masyada said. “Rather, kids are provided with the knowledge they need to engage with civic life, whether that is as a conservative, a liberal, or somewhere in between. I suspect we will continue on that path.”

Asked what he thinks about the quality of civics education in Florida, Masyada, said, “Honestly, I think civic education in Florida is pretty good as far as it goes.” He noted that 71 percent of students passed the civics exam in the spring of 2019, with a score of 3, 4, or 5.

However, Florida allows student to pass with a 3, which is not considered proficient. State data show that only 46 percent of students got a 4 or 5 – proficient or even higher.

Masyada says Florida is making some strides, albeit slowly, in closing gaps in achievement – meaning the differences in scores on the civics exam for students of different races and socioeconomics.

“Civics can always do better,” Masyada said. “It’s important, I think, to see where we are and what we have done.”

When did civics education become an issue in the first place?

Newly sworn in as governor in January, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

issued an executive order to eliminate Common Core, the controversial set of academic standards that has riled various states, including Florida.

But part of that January 31, 2019 executive order also was about “Raising the Bar for Civic Literacy.”

DeSantis’ recommendations included identifying opportunities “to equip high school graduates with sufficient knowledge of civics, particularly the principles reflected in the United States Constitution…”

Within two weeks of the executive order, Republican State Rep. Vance Arthur Aloupis, Jr., representing part of Miami-Dade, filed a bill dealing with civics education. Then Republican state Sen. Kelli Stargel filed similar legislation. She represents parts of Lake and Polk counties.

Both bills had two pages and mentioned only one group – the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. That’s Masyada’s group.

But as things happen in the Legislature, bills get amended.

More advisory nonprofit groups were added.  In addition to the Joint Center, Hillsdale College and the Bill of Rights Institute, the bills included the New York City-based Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based iCivics, and the Constitutional Sources Project, based in Washington, D.C.

In a Phoenix interview with Aloupis, the representative said he has a passion for civics, but didn’t provide a lot of detail about why the groups were chosen to advise Florida officials. He did say that he had conversations with the Department of Education.

“I would not refer to them as right- or left-leaning,” Aloupis said of the groups chosen to advise the Education Commissioner.

Stargel did not respond to a request for an interview.

Masyada said the Joint Center provided a list of civic education organizations that would be helpful in the civics review, “as this is a task we could not do alone despite our long work and experience relating to civics in this state.”

“The only one participating that we didn’t include was Hillsdale. I’m not overly familiar with them outside of their background,” Masyada said. But he added that, “Hillsdale, while certainly Christian in its orientation, does share an understanding of the importance of both civics and government with the other groups.”

As to the Bill of Rights Institute, “while generally right leaning, does do a good job with the foundations of civic education,” Masyada said.

Rep. Aloupis also emphasized that the groups listed in the law aren’t mandated to participate in the review.

What do the nonprofit groups say

Christopher Janson, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based Bill of Rights Institute, said he wasn’t aware until the Phoenix alerted him that the institute’s name was in the civics legislation.

The president of the institute, David Bobb, isn’t ready to be interviewed, Janson said, because Bobb first plans to come to Florida to discuss the civics review and priorities with state Education Commissioner Corcoran.

As to the funding of the Bill of Rights Institute, Janson said, “We’re not a political group. We don’t ask our donors what their political affiliations are and we never let our donors dictate to us.”

He added that the Koch family provides contributions to other organizations as well.

That said, the Kochs have funded organizations “that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction,” according to the 2010 New Yorker story.

Tim Bailey, director of education at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, said he “had no idea” why his organization was named in the state law on civics education, but the nonprofit has been in place for 25 years and has built a national reputation.

“We’re very much known for being absolutely nonpartisan and apolitical. We are a nonprofit and we have funding from both sides of the aisle,” Bailey said.

Hillsdale College spokeswoman Emily Stack Davis provided a one-paragraph response to the Phoenix:

“Hillsdale College is among a number of organizations asked to review Florida’s civics education standards. The College has taught civics since its founding as an abolitionist college in 1844. As an extension of its teaching mission, the College has advised on k-12 civics curricula for more than 25 years to both private and public schools.”

At the Constitutional Sources Project, in Washington D.C., executive director Julie Silverbrook described her nonprofit as nonpartisan and apolitical, and donations are mixed, she said, with a “nice ideological spread.”

But the group’s board of director’s chair, Gene Schaerr, has been described as a conservative lawyer known for fighting against same-sex marriage and “defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage,” according to a memo posted by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.

Asked about that, Constitutional Sources Project Executive Director Silverbrook said: “We don’t have a litmus test for board members,” and, “What Gene does outside of his time has no bearing on what we do.”

The iCivics nonprofit, founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, did not respond to an inquiry from the Phoenix. And the Department of Education has not yet responded to a Phoenix request for an interview.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.