The Biden administration has cut language about “systemic racism” “anti-racist practices,” the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” and Ibram X. Kendi from its Priorities on American History and Civics Education, after a draft regulation provoked flood of negative comments, including a letter from 39 Republican senators.
Education Next reported in May (“Biden History and Civics Priorities Emerge as Battlegrounds”) on the furor over the proposed regulation, laying out selection criteria for applying for federal grants to improve history and civics instruction.
The Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell, and 38 other Republican senators had sent Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona a letter expressing “grave concern” with what they called the department’s “effort to reorient the bipartisan American History and Civics Education programs…toward a politicized and divisive agenda.” The proposed priorities attracted 33,967 comments, many of them negative, in the month after they were posted.
Cardona corrected course or caved to the pressure—choose your description, depending on how you see the issue— in a July blog post that addressed the fight only elliptically. The program “has not, does not, and will not dictate or recommend specific curriculum be introduced or taught in classrooms. Those decisions are – and will continue to be – made at the local level,” he said.
Parents Defending Education, an advocacy group that says it facilitated 11,371 comments on the draft proposal, issued a press release applauding Cardona’s decision “to change course.”
“It is our hope that this change is a sign of the administration’s recommitment to historical accuracy and civics education over ideology and advocacy,” the press release said.
“Thousands of Americans across the country responded to the federal government’s request for comment on this issue, and sent a clear message that this was not an appropriate use of tax dollars,” said Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education. “We are gratified that the Biden Administration has responded to this feedback.”
The revised funding notice published in the Federal Register now refers to “systemic marginalization,” not “systemic racism.” The references to Kendi, to “anti-racist practices,” and to the 1619 Project have all been excised.
Outside the Parents Defending Education press release, the revised rule didn’t get a lot of attention.
Republicans and the partisan conservative press are eager to depict the Biden administration as a bunch of fire-breathing, Critical-Race-Theory-pushing radicals. It doesn’t fit that narrative for Biden to snub Kendi or the 1619 Project and its Pulitzer-winning lead essay-writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Likewise, the progressive left is eager to depict any opposition to Kendi or to the 1619 Project as motivated by racist wealthy conservatives. Cardona’s parents were from Puerto Rico, and he grew up in a Connecticut housing project, so this development doesn’t fit the left’s preferred narrative either. It even could be kind of embarrassing that the Biden administration is so ready to dump Kendi and the 1619 Project overboard rather than insist on keeping the language.
Republicans see the politics of the race-education issue as advantageous to them, and some nonpartisan analysts agree. “This reversal by Biden’s Education Department is a sign of where the politics are on the CRT issue,” is how Josh Kraushaar, a columnist at National Journal, put it in a tweet about the press release.
The issue isn’t going away with a rule revision. On August 11, the Senate approved, on a 50 to 49 vote at 12:16 a.m., an amendment by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, “to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in prekindergarten programs and elementary and secondary schools.” Senator Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, joined Republicans to form the narrow majority. The vote was structured as a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” to comport with strict and arcane Senate procedural rules governing which amendments can be brought to a vote on a budget bill. The function was not so much to set aside any actual federal funds but to put senators on the record on the issue for political accountability purposes—part of a series of such rapid-fire votes known as a “vote-a-rama.”
In a brief debate on the amendment, Cotton said, “Sadly, today, some want to replace our founding principles with an un-American ideology called critical race theory. They want to teach our children that America is not a good nation but a racist nation. Those teachings are wrong, and our tax dollars should not support them. My amendment will ensure that Federal funds are not used to indoctrinate kids as young as pre-K to hate America. Our future depends on the next generation of kids loving America and loving each other as fellow citizens, no matter their race.”
Democrats resorted to a states rights defense. Senator Murray, a Democrat of Washington, said, “Mr. President, you know, this amendment is simply an attempt to force the Federal Government to interfere with local school district decisions about curriculum and academic instruction. There are several longstanding provisions in Federal education law that prohibit the Federal Government from mandating or directing school curriculum. This amendment would contradict that bipartisan consensus and allow the Federal Government to have a say over what schools can and cannot teach our children. I oppose this amendment because I believe States, local school districts, and educators should be in the driver’s seat when making decisions about curriculum, and I urge my colleagues to vote no.” The amendment would have to pass the House, where Democrats have a wider majority than in the Senate, to become law.
In the absence of federal largesse, Kendi and Hannah-Jones have been successful in winning private funding for their projects. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, a private institution, announced a $10 million gift from Twitter and Square cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey, and another $1.5 million from the Vertex Foundation. Howard University, a private historically Black institution in Washington, announced $20 million from three foundations—Knight, Ford, and MacArthur—and an anonymous donor to back Hannah-Jones in a new Center for Journalism and Democracy. It’d be an ironic twist if scholarship denouncing “racial capitalism” winds up attracting more steady support from fortunes made in insurance (MacArthur), automobiles (Ford), and high technology (Dorsey) than from a Democrat-controlled federal government.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.