Of the 49.7 million school-aged children in the United States of America, and the 891,000-plus right here in Colorado – amongst the entire amassed elementary, middle, and high school populations of this vast country – just a hair over 2,000 students are being taught history, economics, geography, and civics from a set of jingoistic curriculum standards which have not been accepted or implemented anywhere else in the country.

That is the most immediate effect of the Woodland Park school board’s January decision to adopt the American Birthright social studies standards: complete educational isolation. It was the potential longer-term impact, however, that led the Colorado Board of Education to reject the standards last fall, and led the national body overseeing social studies education to raise the alarm about the “damaging and lasting effects” of implementing the standards in schools.

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American Birthright

Part III

For the past month, I have been investigating a concerted effort by national groups to use the Woodland Park School District as the testing ground for a radical new right-wing approach to public schools, where the goal is no longer to strangle the system and cut taxes, but to seize the system and train up conservative voters. While much has been reported about what is happening in WPSD, little has been documented about why it is happening in Woodland Park specifically, or who is ultimately behind it. 

The Woodland Park school board’s first-in-the-nation decision to adopt the American Birthright standards brings us closer to answers for those questions.

The American Birthright standards are produced by a group named Civics Alliance. The curriculum provides a version of social studies unburdened by intellectual curiosity, reminiscent of what Umberto Eco called “the cult of tradition,” in which all truth has already been revealed, and the only thing left to do is interpret and refine. The version of reality put forward in American Birthright does not encourage students to ask questions, it simply encourages them to memorize the answers which have been provided for them. It is a long list of facts, and some of them are not even factual.

“There are a lot of names, there are a lot of places, there are a lot of events. What there’s not a whole lot of is inquiry,” Anton Schulzki, a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, told me when we discussed the Birthright standards last week. Schulzki, whose term as immediate past president of the 102 year-old organization ended earlier this month, criticized the standards for not “preparing students to become active citizens. You can’t wait until you’re 18 or 21 to become an active citizen.”

Unsurprisingly, Schulzki’s criticism closely mirrored a statement released by NCSS in September of last year, around when the state board of education considered making Colorado the first state in the nation to adopt the Birthright standards. 

“If implemented in schools, these suggested standards would have damaging and lasting effects on the civic knowledge of students and their capacity to engage in civic reasoning and deliberation,” the NCSS statement said.

Controversial Woodland Park superintendent Ken Witt called American Birthright a “thorough and balanced standard that includes all of the major issues,” as reported by CPR’s Jenny Brundin.

So far, Civics Alliance’s year-long push to see the standards implemented by state boards of education has seen more failure than success. There is an ongoing effort to convince the State of Ohio to adopt the standards, but Woodland Park is the only place in the nation where they have successfully found a foothold. Given that paltry track record, it would be reasonable to assume that the standards are the product of the grassroots or political neophytes – but that’s not the case at all.

In reality, the American Birthright standards – and the experiment being conducted in the classrooms of Woodland Park – have direct ties to some of the most influential right-wing power players in the nation. Civics Alliance is a national coalition of organizations, and the introduction to the Birthright standards document lists more than fifty different entities from states across the country as members of the “American Birthright Coalition.” The group’s steering and executive committees sport a roster of conservative luminaries from well-known think tanks such as the Claremont Institute. 

Due to the vast scale of the paper trail left by the coalition’s member organizations, and the word count necessary to properly elucidate its ties to the happenings in WPSD, I have broken up the American Birthright portion of the Woodland Park investigation into two pieces. The first, the one you are reading, will focus on the content of the curriculum standards, while the second will follow the money.

The Birthright Coalition’s goal is clear: according to the document’s introduction, the coalition seeks to “improve all…aspects of American social studies instruction” by having their standards adopted by enough states (or individual districts, in the case of Woodland Park) to “influence what textbook authors write,” and “what knowledge assessment companies (such as the College Board) test for in their Advanced Placement examinations,” in addition to changing teacher training requirements. The document goes on to spell-out a political strategy for attaining these goals. 

As for their motive, we do not need to discern it from tea leaves. History is how we come to know ourselves as the inheritors of the long, remarkable, troubling, exalting, horrifying, and inspiring legacy of the human race. It is how we come to understand our place in the grand scheme of human events. For that reason, political movements have long attempted to wrest control of it. As lifelong democratic socialist and erstwhile Trotskyite militiaman Eric Blair once observed under a pseudonym, “who controls the past controls the future.” 

American Birthright is structured like many curriculum standards: the material is introduced in increasing complexity as students progress through grade levels. Though Civics Alliance, the makers of the standards, insist that American Birthright is not curriculum in and of itself, it purports to “summarize” the content that schools “should teach” in each grade, across the subjects of history, geography, civics, and economics.

“Explain ways free individuals join together to make decisions. Identify the Founders at the Constitutional Convention as great American exemplars of how this should be done,” reads one of the prompts for instructing first-graders.

“Describe the rise and goals of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and analyze the policies and ideas of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin,” reads a 9th grade prompt.

Virtually every prompt in the K-12 standards document betrays its bias. An 11th grade history prompt about institutions from the New Deal era, for instance, lists three organizations: the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Communist Party. (A less stunted reading of history would inform the authors that those first two organizations, which merged into the AFL-CIO in 1955, were stalwart opponents of communism throughout the Cold War.)

Many of the prompts in the standards go beyond bias, encouraging the teaching of claims which range from debatable to outright false. On the debatable end of that spectrum, an 8th grade history prompt instructs students to “describe the unification of the tribes of Israel under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, including David’s founding of Jerusalem as his capital city in 1000 BC and the building of the first temple by Solomon.” While these figures and events are recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with Jewish or Christian scriptures, their actual historicity is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. The sole non-scriptural evidence for the existence of King David is a single inscription found on a single stone in 1993. Even less evidence exists for the historicity of Saul or Solomon

Birthright’s framing of Cold War issues is no less debatable, depicting the United States’ actions during that prolonged conflict as shoring-up “democratic alliances” and “preserv[ing] national sovereignty.” The standards make no mention of the unfortunate truth that the United States dedicated a great deal of time and effort to overthrowing national governments during the Cold War, something it attempted more than 70 times. Many of these intrusions were against fellow democracies. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the government of Guatemala, replacing democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz with a military dictatorship, ultimately resulting in nearly forty years of civil war. In 1961, the United States toppled the democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba in the then-Republic of the Congo, and helped install Mobutu Sese Seko, who would reign as a strongman for more than thirty years. Reasonable people have disagreed about the merits of U.S. interventionism, but it’s substantially misleading to depict U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War as having any particular regard for the national sovereignty of other nations, even democracies. 

Some of the claims contained in the American Birthright standards are demonstrably false, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine their falsity slipping past editors unnoticed. 

One egregious example can be found in the 10th grade world history standards, where students are taught that Chiang Kai-shek created a “free, prosperous, and democratic Taiwan.” In reality, Chiang was a brutal warlord who, according to some scholarly estimates, caused the deaths of nearly 10 million people during the Chinese Civil War. After the nationalists lost the mainland and decamped to Taiwan in 1949, Chiang ruled the island under martial law for 26 years. During his reign, he imprisoned more than 140,000 political opponents. Chiang, in violation of his own constitution, granted himself the power to review all military tribunals – which included trials of civilians under martial law – and was known to convert short prison sentences into executions. Chiang’s reign of terror does not meet any accepted definition of the words “free” or “democratic.”

The worst example of an outright falsehood in the American Birthright standards appears not once, but three separate times. In the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade modules, students are taught in no uncertain terms that European colonialism “improved life expectancy…among colonized peoples.” This attempt to put a positive spin on one of history’s greatest crimes would be galling enough if the underlying claim were true – but it’s not. Between 1880 and 1920, the height of the British Raj in India, Indian life expectancy did not just decline, it declined by nearly twenty percent, a staggering drop. British colonial policies in India contributed to an estimated 50 to 165 million excess deaths during those same decades, according to a study from last year.

The same sections touting the falsehood about colonial life expectancy instruct students to provide “defenses” of imperialism.

Beyond this broad misreading of history, the Birthright standards are weighed down throughout by the baggage of right-wing culture war grievances and totems, like its frequent mentions of Christopher Columbus (a genocidaire who never set foot in continental North America), or its bizarre fascination with the Abraham Accords (Donald Trump’s sole diplomatic accomplishment, which has contributed to growing instability in the Middle East).

Nor is the document’s academic pedigree enhanced by its references to the “George Floyd Riots,” or its near-desperate attempts to use the word “republic” in instances where any other English-speaker would use the word “democracy” — an age-old conservative canard predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding; in reality, the United States is both a republic and a democracy, and those words describe different aspects of the same system. 

Likewise, the Birthright document undercuts itself with its insistence on listing controversial right-wing figures such as Clarence Thomas (who is currently at the center of one of the largest corruption scandals in modern Supreme Court history) and Charles Lindbergh (a man who literally sided with the Nazis) alongside figures of such enormous historical importance as George Washington, Rosa Parks, and Jonas Salk.


The politics of the American Birthright standards go beyond content: the 214-page standards document includes a section laying out an explicit political strategy, recommending what it calls “several specific actions” which will “help facilitate adoption of state standards modeled on American Birthright.” The section goes on to detail Civics Alliance’s political wish list for federal, state, and local reforms.

For the federal government, Civics Alliance’s recommendations are simple: the feds should “withdraw from regulating or funding any aspect of K-12 education.” Implementing that recommendation might come as something of a shock, though, in states like West Virginia and Alaska where federal grant funds account for more than one-third of all education funding.

Civics Alliance’s recommendations for local school boards is also simple: “Provide leadership and oversight to ensure that teachers adopt a proper social studies curriculum.”

At the state level, though, the group’s recommendations become more specific. Civics Alliance suggests passing laws requiring all high school students to study “Western Civilization,” and passing more laws to “ban discriminatory pedagogies.” In another portion of the introduction, the Birthright authors define these disfavored pedagogies as including “so-called ‘anti-racism’,” and “virtually any pedagogy that claims to promote ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or ‘social justice.’”

Perhaps more striking than the document’s support for problematic figures or its skewed reading of history is the fact that the Birthright authors also oppose the teaching of civic engagement, media literacy, or current events.

The most substantive and concerning of the recommendations are buried deep in the state-level section, where Civics Alliance suggests the passage of laws to give approval power over standards and curriculum to state legislatures, and laws to “increase the power and autonomy of school districts.”

It’s the desired conditions reflected in those last recommendations which brought Civics Alliance to Colorado – a state which already has uniquely autonomous school districts.

“Colorado’s school districts possess an unusual amount of authority to set standards,” Civics Alliance’s executive director David Randall acknowledged in an article on the group’s website, celebrating the Woodland Park school board’s adoption of the Birthright standards in January. “Woodland Park,” Randall wrote, “has just become a model not only for other school districts in Colorado, but also for school districts around the nation. States can adopt American Birthright—and so can school districts.”

“Woodland Park is showing the way,” he crowed. 

When I started this investigation, I posed three big questions. The first of those was, “why are groups from New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C. interested in a district of a few thousand students in Teller County, Colorado?” The American Birthright standards bring us part of the way to an answer: we know why these major think tanks and advocacy orgs zeroed-in on Colorado, if not specifically on Woodland Park: because Colorado school districts possess a degree of autonomy regarding standards and curriculum which makes implementing Civics Alliance’s vision easier. 

But Colorado has 179 school districts, and Civics Alliance has come to roost on only one.

Though the question why Colorado? may be solved, the question why Woodland Park? remains. To pursue an answer to that question, the question at the heart of this entire investigation, I needed to go a level deeper, to look not just at Civics Alliance but at the groups behind it. 

So I did. All fifty-plus of them. 

The groups behind Civics Alliance are not grassroots activists, or even Republican Party operatives. They are something vastly more powerful than that: the hidden framework of the entire American conservative movement – and the money they are moving is massive. Like the standards themselves, though, the coalition is less than it seems: an examination of the discoverable funding streams flowing to the dozens of groups affiliated with Civics Alliance reveals a surprisingly small group of funders. In fact, 78% of the organizations represented on the group’s executive committee are linked to the same two major donors. For the steering committee, the figure backed by those same two donors rises to nearly 90%.

You may not know their names, but you are familiar with their work. 

Next time, I will look at the organizations behind Civics Alliance – and the two major sources of funding binding the whole coalition together to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – and hopefully bring this investigation another step closer to answers.