For the second time in as many months, an Oklahoma state agency has touted a program that has been criticized for encouraging high school students to engage in political activism on behalf of generally left-wing causes.
On Dec. 5, an Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) newsletter highlighted a social studies program called Generation Citizen, which the agency described simply as a nonprofit that “offers training and support to bring action civics into the classroom.” The department reported that 25 schools in 10 cities and towns across Oklahoma currently offer the Generation Citizen program.
On Jan. 3, a newsletter from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce reprinted the OSDE material on Generation Citizen and again distributed it across the state.
On its mission page, Generation Citizen states that democracy “depends on political participation, but young people are turning away from politics.” The answer Generation Citizen offers to that problem is civics lessons it says move beyond memorization of facts and processes and instead has students put theory into practice.
But in practice, critics say Generation Citizen largely gives students credit for left-wing political activism.
David Randall, the research director of the National Association of Scholars, has written that Generation Citizen “smuggles propaganda and vocational training for progressive activism into K-12 schools and calls it ‘action civics.’”
The group’s online activity provides numerous examples of instances where pupils engaged in left-wing politics through Generation Citizen or leaders of the program voiced support for left-wing causes.
On March 24, 2018, in response to the pro-gun-control March for our Lives, Generation Citizen issued a statement declaring the group was “inspired by this activism” even as officials also said Generation Citizen “does not take policy positions.”
“For every single time we see real change in this country, student activism is at the forefront,” the statement declared.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the head of Generation Citizen’s policy and advocacy department decried a voter ID law in North Dakota that required people to provide a document that included a residential address, something some tribal ID cards do not include. The author asked, “what sort of civic cues does the situation in North Dakota send to our young adults, the future stewards of our democracy?”
“Like many civic actors, I have witnessed incidents of voter suppression unfold with profound concern,” the Generation Citizen document stated. “If adults want young people to active value our democracy, we must demonstrate that the process, regardless of party affiliation, is fair.”
North Dakota is the only state in the nation that does not require citizens to register to vote, and its Voter ID law required only that voters present approved forms of identification that included a voter’s legal name, current residential address, and date of birth. If a voter’s ID lacked any of those three items, the voter could still vote if he or she provided the missing information via a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, or other document issued by a federal, state, or local government agency.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld North Dakota’s law.
In an “action civics spotlight” in its 2019 annual report, Generation Citizen reported on one of its projects in Oklahoma, writing, “Del Crest Middle School students in Mr. Baker’s class wanted to focus on issues impacting the LGBTQ community.”
Mr. Baker referenced in the report is Aaron Baker, an 8th-grade social studies teacher from the Mid-Del school district who has written that he teaches his students “that the phrase ‘law and order’ is steeped in systemic racism,” and on another occasion declared, “There are seeds of an Oklahoma Socialist revival germinating in the rich soil of progressive #oklaed.”
Amy Curran, Oklahoma executive director of Generation Citizen—whose email signature includes a line stating, “Pronouns: she/her”—says the organization has no political agenda.
“We do not tell our students how to advocate for change,” Curran wrote.
She said students who participate in Generation Citizen programs have advocated for both liberal and conservative causes.
“We’ve seen young people advocate for a cap on charter schools, and worked with young people who pushed for more school choice,” Curran said.
She argues that Generation Citizen’s “action civics” model is preferable to prior forms of civics instruction.
“For far too long, civics education, when taught at all, has been a static discipline in which young people learn about a form of democracy that does not pertain to their own lives,” Curran wrote. “Students are taught facts and figures, and told to take a test on how a bill becomes a law. This approach has contributed to diminishing levels of civic competency and knowledge amongst all young people, and most acutely amongst young people from under-represented backgrounds, who receive less relevant civics education than their affluent counterparts.”
In its annual report, Generation Citizen officials said the organization was involved in the Oklahoma Academic Standards for Social Studies Drafting Committee and helped “revised state standards to include civics as a core strand and recommended practices that align with key components of Action Civics.”
When asked why the Department of Commerce chose to tout the Generation Citizen program, an agency spokesperson replied, “We regularly promote news shared by other government agencies on topics related to economic development, community development, workforce, and education issues.”