During a Thursday hearing held by the House Education and Labor Committee, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona deflected questions about the federal government’s influence in civics curriculum regarding the history of racism, calling attention to the issue as “politics more than programming.”
Cardona was responding to several questions by Republican committee members about their concerns that the U.S. Department of Education referenced The 1619 Project — a long-form journalism project that, among other features, promotes teaching about the consequences of slavery — in a proposed rule for civics education grants published in April.
While much of the nearly five-hour hearing was focused on funding and priorities for pandemic recovery efforts, the exchanges about the teaching of systemic racism in America mirrors the intense debates taking place in some local communities about critical race theory in education.
Cardona repeatedly said the federal government does not promote or mandate classroom curricula. He also said several times teachings that have culturally relevant pedagogy benefit all students.
“I do believe that students learn best when they are exposed to curriculum that show different cultures and how we can come together as one country under one flag,” Cardona said. “I believe that's possible, and I have confidence that the educators across the country know how to do it, can do it and will do it, if given the ability to do so.”
Many of the Republican lawmakers said they too support instruction that includes representation of various races and cultures. Several, however, said the department’s reference to The 1619 Project in the notice for civics education grant priorities is “radical” and “far left ideology.” Some members asked the department to withdraw the reference.
They also say the promotion in schools of critical race theory — an academic concept that America has a history of institutionalized racism and persistent racial inequality — would cause further divisions in the country.
“Indoctrinating children is a violation of federal law,” said the committee’s top Republican member, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. “Critical race theory is contrary to the American ideal of judging people on their character, not their physical appearance.”
While Democratic committee members stayed mostly quiet on the subject, Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, a former history teacher, asked those fatigued from discussing race to “imagine, just for a second, the people who are living through it every day.”
“There are some things in our history that we just have to face head on,” Hayes said, “but the role of teachers is to give kids critical thinking skills, not tell them how to feel about certain events.”
A recent review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of states’ civics standards found, in general, there’s a “basic disagreement about how to tell the American story and determine what’s most important for young people to learn.” Several states have recently banned the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts, while some other states are promoting the instruction of the history of racism and anti-racist themes.
Other topics covered during the hearing included:
Title I: The Department of Education is proposing a $20 billion increase in Title I grants for high-poverty schools in its $102.8 billion FY 2022 budget proposal. Several lawmakers remarked at how significant the increase could be as schools respond to students’ lost instruction time and trauma due to the pandemic.
“So often our schools, particularly our Title I schools are asked to solve all of society's problems in the school building and as we know the schools can't do it alone,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York and vice chair of the committee, who said even if the increase is approved, successful execution of supports will rely on interagency collaboration.
Accountability with spending: A few committee members asked Cardona to clarify when school districts will see COVID-19 stimulus funding and how the Department of Education is ensuring the funding is spent as intended. The secretary said most of the funds have been obligated and will be spent as needed.
“Superintendents are protecting taxpayer dollars, ensuring that the money goes to where it's needed most,” said Cardona, adding the department has issued guidance, held webinars and is talking with individual states about funding expectations.
Access to learning: Several lawmakers from rural localities expressed concerns about the lack of broadband access and students who are impacted by the digital divide. While Cardona said he expects all schools to reopen to full-time in-person learning in the fall, but there is more work to do to help students access reliable at-home internet service and to build confidence in populations that are more reluctant to return to in-person learning while the pandemic is ongoing.