Vouchers (Again) And The First Amendment

I was asked to speak to the Shepherd’s Center at North United Methodist Church about  vouchers and Separation of Church and State. Here’s the speech I delivered. Warning:  longer than my usual posts!


I was asked to talk today about the relationship of the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses—clauses which, when read together, establish America’s Separation of Church and State—to the nation’s wildly expensive and expanding school voucher programs.

That relationship is key to understanding the overarching threat posed by voucher programs. There are many problems with these programs, and I frequently rant about them on my blog, but the threat to the First Amendment is far and away the most serious.

The exercise of religion requires that each person follow his or her own conscience.  Since opinions and beliefs can be shaped only by individual consideration of evidence that a given individual finds persuasive, no one can really impose opinions on anyone else– government can only force outward obedience to any particular religious tenet. That realization led the nation’s Founders to decree that government should be—to use James Madison’s term– “noncognizant” of its citizens’ religions. Madison believed that government simply had no jurisdiction over religion. He, Jefferson and other Founders believed that a just state is required to be blind to religion–that government should not use religion to classify citizens and should neither privilege nor penalize citizens on the basis of religion.

From the earliest days of the American colonies, separating Church from State was seen as an important protection for both government and religion. Let me just begin this discussion with some history that I hope illuminates that assertion.

Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, is most often cited for the religious view of the importance of separation; he was the originator, as far as we know, of the phrase “a wall of separation”— a full 150 years before Thomas Jefferson used it. Historians sometimes overlook the importance 18th and 19th century Christians placed on the doctrine of liberty of conscience—what they called “soul freedom.” Such views were most strongly held by Mennonites, Quakers and Baptists, but they were also part of the beliefs of colonial era Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians.

John Leland was a traveling evangelical Baptist with a strong view of the individual’s relationship to God, the inviolability of the individual conscience, and the limited nature of human knowledge. He wrote, “religion is a matter between God and individuals; religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.” He also wrote that “the state has no right or leave to concern itself with the beliefs of an individual or that individual’s right to expound those beliefs…The state is to maintain order, not to judge right and wrong.” And here’s my favorite Leland quote: “The very tendency of religious establishments by human law is to make some hypocrites and the rest fools; they are calculated to destroy those very virtues that religion is designed to build up…Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”

Did some people living at the same time as Founders like Jefferson and Madison and religious figures like Leland think otherwise? Of course. But it was the position of Madison and Leland that prevailed; it was their view of the proper relationship (which might more accurately be described as the proper lack of a relationship) between church and state that became part of our constitutional structure.

Today, in addition to rampant historical revisionism, there are two common justifications for allowing government to take cognizance of religion—arguments that are mutually exclusive, although often offered by the same people. The instrumental argument holds that public expression of religion changes behavior, and the ceremonial justification says public prayers don’t amount to establishment because they are just meaningless ceremonies meant to add solemnity to occasions.

You are all familiar with the instrumental argument; it is best summarized by a bumper sticker that was popular a few years ago: something along the lines of “When prayer was removed from the classroom, guns and teenage pregnancy came in.”

This naive belief that exposure to a denatured and generic religion in the classroom will make students behave is the same justification given for efforts to post the Ten Commandments—if people see “Thou shalt not kill” on the wall of a public building, well, they won’t kill. (For complex theological reasons I do not understand, this evidently won’t work if the building is privately owned.) Unfortunately, available evidence does not support this belief in the magical powers of religious iconography.

The United States is by far the most religious of all the western industrialized nations—and we are also the most violent. There are few—if any—atheists in our prisons. Folks in the Bible Belt pray more—and kill more. And most school shootings haven’t occurred in hotbeds of secularism like Berkeley or Cambridge or New York City, but in towns where Norman Rockwell and James Dobson would feel right at home.

Historically, a large percentage of America’s persistent arguments over separation of church and state have focused on the nation’s public schools. We’re seeing this mirrored in the current “anti-woke” efforts to ban books in public school libraries; evidently, a significant number of Americans are fixated on shielding children from contact with beliefs of which they do not approve—and that fixation is typically rooted in religion.

The courts consistently ruled against efforts to circumvent the First Amendment by bringing prayer and other religious observances into public school classrooms, so proponents of religious indoctrination found a workaround– and educational vouchers were born. (In all fairness, many early proponents of vouchers were persuaded by arguments that private schools were doing a better job—that children “trapped” in substandard public schools would benefit. Subsequent research has proved those arguments wrong, but I don’t mean to suggest that every voucher proponent wanted public money for religious education. Many did, but others just wanted to destroy the teachers’ unions.)

Predictably, opponents of early voucher programs raised both First Amendment and state constitutional concerns, arguing that the use of public funds to pay tuition at religious schools violated both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and state-level prohibitions known as “Blaine Amendments.” The Supreme Court considered those First Amendment arguments in 2002, in a case called Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That case challenged an Ohio voucher program in place in Cleveland. In 1999 and 2000, 82% of the schools participating in the Cleveland program were religiously affiliated, and 96% of the students using the vouchers were enrolled in one of those religious schools. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals had ruled for the parents who were challenging the program; however, the Supreme Court reversed, accepting the argument that the vouchers weren’t payments to the schools, but to the parents, whose choice of religious schools was made freely and voluntarily, and that as a result, the vouchers could not properly be characterized as tax support for the religious schools. Since the choice of school was made by the parents, and the program’s official goal was secular—it was characterized as a program to allow low-income children to escape a failing school system– the Court held that the voucher program didn’t run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

And we were off to the races.

State courts, including the Indiana Supreme Court, have largely adopted the logic of the Zelman decision, and have allowed voucher programs to operate despite state constitutional provisions forbidding the payment of state tax dollars to religious institutions. The Indiana Constitution has one of these provisions, commonly called “Blaine Amendments.”  They were named for Congressman James Blaine, who sponsored a federal constitutional amendment in 1875 that would have forbidden public funding of religious schools. Blaine’s amendment was seen as an effort to prevent government from supporting Catholic schools—schools that had originally been established in response to Protestant bible-reading in public school classrooms.  Blaine’s effort at a federal amendment failed, but thirty-eight states subsequently added those provisions to their state constitutions. In sixteen states where Blaine Amendments seemed likely to preclude judicial approval of voucher programs, so-called “neo-vouchers” have used tax credits to circumvent the problem; the subsidies have been deemed “tax reductions” rather than direct spending. Arizona is the most prominent state employing this tactic; its Supreme Court upheld the state’s “tax credit scholarships” in 1998. In two states, Massachusetts and Michigan, both vouchers and neo-vouchers have been held to violate those states’ constitutions.

On my bIog, I’ve posted numerous times about multiple ways advocates of privatization and “choice in education” have contributed to the hollowing out of America’s civic structure.  “Choice” sounds great. Providing citizens with a wide freedom of choice–of religion, politics, lifestyle– is quintessentially American. The problems occur when institutionalized choices promote division and undermine civic cohesion.

In far too many communities today, the “educational choice” being offered is the opportunity to shield one’s children from intellectual and cultural diversity. Vouchers provide parents with tax dollars that allow them to insulate their children from one of the very few remaining “street corners” left in contemporary American society. Whatever their original intent, as vouchers work today, they are mechanisms allowing parents to remove their children from public school classrooms and shield them from classmates conveying information incompatible with those parents’ beliefs and prejudices.

In virtually all states with active voucher programs, including Indiana, well over 90% of participating schools are religious, and a disproportionate number of those are fundamentalist Christian schools teaching bogus history and creationism rather than science.

Several academic studies and media outlets have reviewed the textbooks used in those schools. One history textbook exclusively refers to immigrants as “aliens”. Another blames the Black Lives Matter movement for strife between communities and police officers. A third discusses the prevalence of “black supremacist” organizations during the civil rights movement, and calls Malcolm X the most prominent “black supremacist” of the era.

The media continues to report on acrimonious battles in legislatures and boards of education about how issues of race and equity are handled in public school classrooms, but it has largely ignored the education provided by private schools, thousands of which have been excluding diverse voices and teaching biased versions of history for years.

The Guardian is one of the few media outlets that has reviewed the textbooks currently used in thousands of private religious schools. These are schools that receive tens of thousands of dollars in public funding every year. Those textbooks downplay descriptions of slavery and ignore its structural consequences.  The report notes that the books “frame Native Americans as lesser and blame the Black Lives Matter movement for sowing racial discord.”

While we do read about Americans fighting over wildly distorted descriptions of Critical Race Theory and public school “indoctrination,” the Guardian article pointed out that there has been virtually no attention paid to the curricula of private schools accepting vouchers. As the article notes,

“Private schools, unlike public ones, receive little oversight or restrictions when it comes to curriculum. In truth, thousands of private schools are currently teaching history through a racially biased lens.”

The Guardian reviewed dozens of textbooks produced by the Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education, three of the most popular textbook sources used in private religious schools throughout the US. These textbooks describe slavery as “black immigration”, and say Nelson Mandela helped move South Africa to a system of “radical affirmative action”.

The Abeka website boasts that in 2017, its textbooks reached more than 1 million Christian school students. The Accelerated Christian Education website claims its materials are used in “tens of thousands of schools.” One of its textbooks still refers to the civil war as the “war between the states,” and has a section titled “Black immigration” that characterizes the slave trade as “sometimes unwilling immigration.”

With respect to Reconstruction, the Accelerated Christian Education textbook contained the following paragraph:

“Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south … For all these reasons, reconstruction led to graft and corruption and reckless spending. In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.”

Huffpost has reported that Christian textbooks used in thousands of schools around the country teach that President Barack Obama helped spur destructive Black Lives Matter protests, that the Democrats’ choice of Hillary Clinton in 2016 reflected the party’s focus on identity politics, and that President Donald Trump was the “fighter” Republicans needed. The Huffpost analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Unsurprisingly, since most of these schools refuse to admit gay children or the children of same-sex partners, the books were also biased against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I’m clearly not a neutral observer, but I don’t think that science denial, bogus history and homophobia are the best way to prepare students for life in contemporary American society.

Worse, multiple academic studies confirm that these vouchers that have increased religious and racial segregation have done that damage without improving academic performance. Back in 2018, The Wall Street Journal –hardly a leftwing publication–analyzed data on Milwaukee’s program, the nation’s oldest, and found that the city’s 29,000 voucher students, “on average, have performed about the same as their peers in public schools on state exams.” Other studies have found voucher students lagging behind similar students attending public schools.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, which has one of the nation’s largest voucher programs, public schools are struggling to perform without adequate resources, and underpaid teachers are leaving in droves.

The U.S. Constitution gives parents the right to choose a religious education for their children. It does not impose an obligation on taxpayers to fund that choice.

Back in 2005, I wrote an article for an academic journal about the privatization of education, titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers. I’ll conclude this by quoting one of the paragraphs from that early article:

One of the largest and most active blocs working for vouchers are the cultural conservatives of the Christian Right. Groups like the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) might at first blush seem very strange bedfellows for libertarians, with whom they share little ideological ground. And it is certainly true that their motives for supporting school choice have little to do with markets and much to do with their views on morality. Many believe, with Robert Simonds of CEE, that “Atheism and many perverted forms of immorality are being forced upon all public-school students, not just Christian students.”

Theodore Lowi has linked the politicization of the Christian Right to the nationalization of the Bill of Rights and especially the application of the First Amendment to the states. Even a cursory reading of their literature will confirm that anger with current Establishment Clause jurisprudence, particularly rulings against officially sanctioned school prayer, is the source of much Christian Right hostility to public schools and support for school choice.

There are many, many other problems with vouchers, but the negative effect on a pluralist democracy is perhaps the most significant–and least recognized.

Thank you.


Don’t Know Much About History…

Before my stint as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I had never heard of David Barton. When that job required me to engage in discussions with people who refused to believe in the separation of Church and State, however, he was frequently quoted.

Barton–a total fraud–was frequently touted in these debates, cited as a “respected Christian historian,” and it was unsurprising that  the folks making those assertions  dismissed the debunking protestations of a female ACLU lawyer (Jewish, to boot!). 

That background may explain why I immediately clicked through to read a Politico article titled “The Bogus Historians Who Teach Evangelicals They Live in a Theocracy.” Here’s what the author–himself a devout Evangelical–had to say about Barton:

The people packed into FloodGate Church in Brighton, Mich., weren’t here for Bill Bolin, the right-wing zealot pastor who’d grown his congregation tenfold by preaching conspiracy-fueled sermons since the onset of Covid-19, turning Sunday morning worship services into amateur Fox News segments. No, they had come out by the hundreds, decked out in patriotic attire this October evening in 2021, to hear from a man who was introduced to them as “America’s greatest living historian.” They had come for David Barton. And so had I.

It would be of little use to tell the folks around me — the people of my conservative hometown — that Barton wasn’t a real historian. They wouldn’t care that his lone academic credential was a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University. It wouldn’t matter that Barton’s 2012 book on Thomas Jefferson was recalled by Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest Christian publisher, for its countless inaccuracies, or that a panel of 10 conservative Christian academics who reviewed Barton’s body of work in the aftermath ripped the entirety of his scholarship to shreds. It would not bother the congregants of FloodGate Church to learn that they were listening to a man whose work was found by one of America’s foremost conservative theologians to include “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
All this would be irrelevant to the people around me because David Barton was one of them. He believed the separation of church and state was a myth. He believed the time had come for evangelicals to reclaim their rightful place atop the nation’s governmental and cultural institutions. Hence the hero’s welcome Barton received when he rolled into FloodGate with his “American Restoration Tour.”

Throughout his decades of public life — working for the Republican Party, becoming a darling of Fox News, advising politicians such as new House Speaker Mike Johnson, launching a small propaganda empire, carving out a niche as the American right’s chosen peddler of nostalgic alternative facts — Barton had never been shy about his ultimate aims. He is an avowed Christian nationalist who favors theocratic rule; moreover, he is a so-called Dominionist, someone who believes Christians should control not only the government but also the media, the education system, and other cultural institutions. Barton and his ilk are invested less in advancing individual policies than they are in reconceiving our system of self-government in its totality, claiming a historical mandate to rule society with biblical dogma just as the founders supposedly intended.

The author went on to describe the speech Barton delivered, which he described as “exalting a curious version of the Christian ideal.” Evidently gun restrictions are un-Christian. So too are progressive income taxes, government health care and public education. During his denunciation of critical race theory, he shared a slide showing logos for The New York Times’s 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter framed around a Soviet hammer and sickle.

There was much more…

What the deeply religious author described is part and parcel of a phenomenon that has become increasingly obvious over the past several years: the transformation of Evangelical Christianity from a religion into a political ideology. In this essay and in his new book,”The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism,” he documents what he calls the “deterioration of American Christianity.”

The Politico article is quite lengthy. And terrifying. I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It illustrates the politicization of the churches the author witnessed firsthand in his research for the book–research that took him to “half-empty sanctuaries and standing-room-only auditoriums” and included shadowing big-city televangelists and small-town preachers. He says he reported from inside hundreds of churches, Christian colleges, religious advocacy organizations, denominational nonprofits, and assorted independent ministries.

Among the other things his chilling descriptions illuminated was the importance of  teaching accurate history–and the motives of the Christian Nationalists who are attacking the public schools that teach that history.


An Even Bigger “Big Sort”

I’ve referred previously to the important 2004 book The Big Sort, which documented the way in which Americans have been “sorting” ourselves by choosing to live in areas we find philosophically and politically compatible. The book, by Bill Bishop, cast light on one of the underappreciated reasons Americans are so culturally and politically divided.

Much more recently, a lengthy article fromThe New Republic documented a sharp increase in that sorting. Red states have been bleeding college graduates for a while now–in Indiana, the “brain drain” is a persistent source of concern at the statehouse– but there is considerable evidence that “hard-right social policies in red states are making this dynamic worse.”

Let me just quote a few paragraphs from the article, which–as I indicated–is lengthy.

The number of applications for OB-GYN residencies is down more than 10 percent in states that have banned abortion since Dobbs. Forty-eight teachers in Hernando County, Florida, fed up with “Don’t Say Gay” and other new laws restricting what they can teach, resigned or retired at the end of the last school year. A North Carolina law confining transgender people to bathrooms in accordance with what it said on their birth certificate was projected, before it was repealed, to cost that state $3.76 billion in business investment, including the loss of a planned global operations center for PayPal in Charlotte. A survey of college faculty in four red states (Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina) about political interference in higher education found a falloff in the number of job candidates for faculty positions, and 67 percent of the respondents said they would not recommend their state to colleagues as a place to work. Indeed, nearly one-third said they were actively considering employment elsewhere.

Until very recently, college graduates had split their votes between the parties. But with the arrival of Donald Trump,

college graduates left the Republican fold for the foreseeable future. Trump dropped the Republican share to 44 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2020. If Trump wins the nomination in 2024, the GOP’s share of college voters could drop below 40, and I don’t see any of Trump’s challengers for the Republican nomination doing much better. It isn’t clear they even want to, because today’s GOP sees college graduates as the enemy.

Then there’s the accelerating exodus of OB-GYNs from states governed by Republicans who–in Barney Frank’s memorable phase–believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.

It was hard enough for red states to hold onto their OB-GYNs even before Dobbs. A little more than one-third of all counties nationwide are “maternity care deserts,” typically in rural areas, with no hospitals or birthing centers that offer obstetric care and no individual obstetric providers (not even midwives), according to the March of Dimes.

It isn’t just OB-GYNs and the relative handful of doctors who assist transgender children. It’s also educators.

Since January 2021, 18 states have imposed restrictions on how teachers may address the subjects of race and gender, according to Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz. These include most of the Dobbs Fourteen and a few add-ons, including Florida and New Hampshire. According to a 2022 study by the RAND Corporation, legislative action not only accelerated after 2021 but also became more repressive, extending beyond the classroom to restrict professional development plans for teachers. Let’s call these teacher-harassing states the Morrison Eighteen, in honor of the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose The Bluest Eye is number three with a bullet on the American Library Association’s 2022 list of books most frequently targeted for removal. (The 1970 novel ranked eighth in 2021 and ninth in 2020.)

Taking a tour of the Morrison Eighteen, we find Texas teachers quitting at a rate that’s 25 percent above the national average. In Tennessee, the vacancy rate for all public schools is 5.5 percent, compared to a national average of 4 percent. South Carolina has teacher shortages in 17 subject areas this school year, more than any other state.

But Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida is the undisputed champ. A 2022 study led by Tuan D. Nguyen of Kansas State University found that Florida had the most teacher vacancies in the country, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama (all Morrison Eighteen states). Florida also logged the highest number of under-qualified teachers.

Remember John Edwards theme of “Two Americas”? He wasn’t talking about the culture wars then, but the phrase certainly seems appropriate.

In 2010, the GOP’s incredibly successful Redmap project--its “gerrymander on steroids”–installed rightwing legislators in a number of formerly competitive states. Those lawmakers proceeded to pass the culture war policies that are motivating the exodus of educated citizens and professionals–aka “smarty pants”–  resented by the angry know-nothings who are now the GOP’s base voters.

And so here we are. Click through, read the entire article, and weep….


Charters Aren’t Vouchers

The media recently reported the results of a recent study of schools in Indiana and other states, and found that children attending public charter schools had better learning outcomes than those in traditional public schools or voucher schools.

When I saw the headlines, I cringed–not because of the study’s findings, which seem credible, but because I’d be willing to bet that nine out of ten people reading those reports don’t understand the difference between charter schools and voucher schools–and it’s a critical difference.

Charter schools are independently run public schools that are granted greater flexibility in their operations than traditional public schools. (Theoretically, at least, that flexibility is in exchange for greater accountability for performance.) In the Indianapolis Public School system, leaders at these schools have independent control of policies and academics while still being part of the public school district. 

Because they are public schools, charters are not allowed to charge tuition. They are not allowed to teach or favor any religion. And importantly, since charter schools are public schools, they are constrained by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, gender, socioeconomic status, previous academic scores, or special education status.

Vouchers–as I have explained repeatedly on this site–are very different. Voucher programs send public money–tax dollars– to private schools to offset the tuition charged by those schools. A vast majority of the private schools that accept vouchers are religious, and a vast majority of students employing those vouchers use them to attend religious schools. Furthermore, virtually all of those voucher schools discriminate on some basis–either limiting enrollment to members of a particular faith, excluding students with special needs, or–in several high-profile situations–excluding gay children, or children with gay parents. 

There are problems with charter schools, particularly with those that have contracted with for-profit entities to manage them, but those problems differ substantially from the issues presented by voucher programs. Vouchers weren’t developed in an effort to improve education; they were meant to be “work-arounds.” The First Amendment, along with many state constitutions, prohibits the use of public funds to support religion or religious institutions. Voucher proponents argued that the millions of tax dollars going into the coffers of religious schools are “really” going to the parents, and that the parents are individual citizens who should be free to spend those dollars to send their children to the school of their choice. (And I have a bridge to sell you…)

Courts bought that argument.

The study found that students who attended charters  in Indianapolis had somewhat stronger educational outcomes than those in either traditional public schools, or in IPS “innovation” schools, which are a different type of charter. (Numerous studies have found that children attending voucher schools do no better–and often do more poorly–than similar children attending traditional public schools.)

Indianapolis students in poverty who attend charter schools showed stronger academic growth in math and similar growth in reading compared to the state average, according to the study. 

CREDO’s own metric for comparison also found that students at Indianapolis charter schools gained more days of learning in math and reading during a typical academic year than similar students at traditional IPS district schools and innovation charter schools within the district. Other comparisons in the study include:

Black and Hispanic students at charter schools had stronger academic growth in math and reading compared to Black and Hispanic peers at district schools. No significant difference in learning gains were found between the same student groups in innovation charter schools compared to district schools.

Students in poverty at charter schools had more learning gains in math and reading compared to their peers at district schools. No significant difference in learning gains were found between the same student group in innovation charter schools compared to district schools.

No matter what type of school English Language Learners in Indianapolis attend from the study, they show similar learning gains in reading and math.

The theory behind charter schools was that their greater flexibility would allow them to experiment with curricula and other aspects of the educational environment, and that successful experimentation could then be “imported” into the traditional public schools. According to the linked article, that is precisely the approach being taken by the IPS Superintendent.

I do welcome the study–and for that matter, all evidence of what works and what doesn’t– but I’d be a lot more enthusiastic if i wasn’t convinced that it will be intentionally mischaracterized to support voucher proponents’ efforts to defame and de-fund our public schools….


Addressing The Civics Deficit

I spent a considerable part of my academic career focusing on what I described as the civic deficit. Soon after joining the faculty–and especially when I taught undergraduate classes–I came face to face with students who had obviously gone through both elementary and high school classes without learning even the most basic outlines of American history or government.

An exchange with an undergraduate first acquainted me with the extent of that civic deficit.

I taught my classes through a constitutional lens. We studied the Bill of Rights and wrestled with questions about how those rights should be understood and applied today. I often introduced discussion of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions by asking students questions like “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?”

Obviously, the response I wanted was something along the lines of “James Madison never imagined a communication mechanism like the Internet”–which would then lead to a (hopefully nuanced) discussion of how today’s courts should apply the values protected by that Amendment to a world the founders could never have imagined. So I was taken aback when a young woman–a junior in college–responded to that question with a puzzled question of her own: “Who’s James Madison?”

I went home, had a very stiff drink–and for the ensuing 18 or so years, focused a major part of my research agenda and advocacy on civic education.

I relate this story because I am finally beginning to see evidence that others share my concern–and my firm belief in the importance of civic knowledge.  The New York Times recently reported that businesses in the U.S. and Europe have recognized the existence and significance of the deficit, and are engaging in efforts to fill the void left by inadequate schooling.

The article began by describing a German worker’s experience with online conspiracy attacks, and the subsequent eight-week program that helped her deal with the misinformation. The program was offered by her employer, described as a “multinational recruitment firm with 3,500 employees in Germany.” The company said the project was part of its own aim to “strengthen democratic values and make their employees more resilient.”

Across Germany, several hundred companies have taken part in such workshops, and similar classes are being held in other Western countries, including the United States. Businesses are finding they need to bolster their employees in the face of increasingly vitriolic political debate. Seminars on civics and democratic principles — such as the importance of voting or recognizing the dangers of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech — have become a way to ensure healthier relationships at the workplace, and in society at large. In addition, reports show that economic growth is higher in stable democracies, and liberal border policies allow companies to attract skilled immigrants.

The instruction has benefits for employee performance; according to representatives of the companies. They say that giving employees basic knowledge of democratic principles and factual underpinnings helps them “recognize and respond to hate speech and misinformation” and “has made employees more self-assured in doing their jobs.”

Groups like the Business Council for Democracy and Weltoffenes Sachsen in Germany and Civic Alliance or the Leadership Now Project in the United States organize workshops like the one Ms. Krüger took part in, provide research and webinars, and support civic education and get-out-the-vote efforts — all of it nonpartisan. Most are nonprofit organizations, backed by independent foundations or a group of businesses that rely on their political independence as a selling point…

A key principle of the workshops was that they be voluntary for employees, said Nina Gbur, the organization’s project manager. They also have to be ideologically neutral, and not target any group or members of a given political party.

What is encouraging is growing recognition that the health of business depends upon the health of democracy.

“Democracy is the basis of our entrepreneurial activity,” said Judith Borowski, managing director of Nomos, which offers its employees civics workshops. “And if we no longer have democracy, then the basis for our entrepreneurial activities will also be very curtailed.”

Authoritarianism is facilitated by ignorance–the ability of political extremists to twist facts and misrepresent history in order to play on citizens’ fears and prejudices.

In Germany, media literacy has been a critical issue, while programs in the United States are frequently focused on teaching employees about how the government works and voting rights. But their basic premise is to empower employees to understand how their actions, both in and out of the workplace, affect the political climate and, ultimately, their own jobs.

These programs are very good news. So is the movement to expand civics education in the schools.

We have a very long way to go…