By Terri Jo Neff
In a partial victory for 20 state attorneys general, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) backtracked on Monday on plans that would have prioritized $5 million in grant funds for American history and civics lessons that focus on the issue of racial marginalization.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was among those who signed a letter sent in May to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressing “deep concerns” with proposed changes to how American history and civics instruction programs would be taught in K-12 schools across the country.
DOE had announced in April that some of the agency’s grant funding for history and civics instruction would be prioritized for programs which reflect “the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students into teaching and learning.” That plan, however, received a large backlash.
A notice on July 19 in the Federal Register states DOE will consider grant proposals which “promote new and existing evidence-based strategies to encourage innovative American history, civics and government, and geography instruction” including those which address “systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.”
But DOE has promised to not give such proposals an automatic advantage or competitive edge over other history and civics instruction grant requests. The application period opened Monday.
“The Department recognizes the value of supporting teaching and learning that reflects the rich diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students,” Cardona wrote on the DOE website. “As every parent knows, when students can make personal connections to their learning experiences, there are greater opportunities for them to stay engaged in their education and see pathways for their own futures.”
The Federal Register notice marks a major change by DOE exactly two months after Brnovich and several colleagues complained to Cardona that the grant priorities announced in April were a “thinly veiled attempt” to promote the controversial teachings of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (CRT).
The 1619 Project’s focus on America’s history is changed from 1776 to 1619 when the first Africans arrived at what was Colonial Virginia one year before the arrival of Pilgrims near Plymouth Rock. CRT views or interprets American history and civics primarily through the narrow prism of race.
The attorneys general argued to Cardona that DOE’s promotion of CRT and the 1619 Project and ideologies would be endorsing the teaching of a warped, factually deficient view of American history. Their letter asked that the proposed priorities not be adopted or that DOE make clear that grants may not be used to fund projects which characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism instead of principles of equality.
DOE’s notice in the National Register did not go as far as the attorneys general wanted, but it is seen as a partial victory which guarantees grant applications for for history and civics lessons which veer substantially from traditional lessons will not have an advantage.