The U.S. Department of Education has backed off plans to prioritize projects funded by grants that focus on systemic bias and marginalization in history and civics instruction, following an uproar in the spring. But they haven’t signaled a total retreat. And what lessons observers should draw from the controversy over the small grant program are less than clear.
In Federal Register notices published Monday, the department said that it would invite grant proposals for the American History and Civics program “that reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students into teaching and learning,” but it would not give such proposals a competitive edge. The same goes for the department’s invitation for grants to “foster information literacy skills.”
That’s a departure from the department’s plans in April to prioritize those approaches when doling out grant money. Yet key elements of the agency’s philosophy about teaching history and civics survive in the new notice, and the department says the issues it highlighted four months ago remain important to the agency.
In Monday’s notices, the agency did not mention the 1619 Project, the New York Times Magazine series that put the legacy of slavery and racism at the heart of the American experience, and the self-described anti-racist writer Ibram X. Kendi. That marks a departure from the department’s original proposal, which included references to the 1619 Project and Kendi in its background material.
Such references did not in any way require those seeking the grant money to incorporate the 1619 Project or Kendi into their proposals. But the mention of them helped spark a backlash from conservative groups and politicians; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the top Republican in the Senate, denounced the proposal as “divisive nonsense.”
Conservatives hail the department’s shift as a victory. For example, Parents Defending Education, a group that helped coordinate thousands of comments opposed to the grant priorities, celebrated the news as a win.
The department’s preliminary plans from April did not mention critical race theory. Yet the proposed grant priorities also fed into the national political brawl over the academic concept that says racism is embedded in American policies and laws far beyond individuals’ prejudices.
As part of this backlash, 11 states this year as of mid-July had enacted bans on teaching critical race theory or restricted how schools address racism and sexism.
At least 4,600 of the public comments submitted to the department about the grant plans referenced critical race theory.
One theme of the comments critical of the department’s proposal was that it would create unnecessary division and indoctrinate students with harmful ideologies. Yet supporters said such approaches would help foster an accurate and inclusive understanding of American history. (The 1619 Project is the basis for a curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center.)
Here’s more of what you need to know about this controversy
The grants, which involve a little more than $5 million this year, do not involve the creation of a curriculum endorsed by the department. By law, the federal government is prohibited from telling schools what curriculum to use or not use, a point the department stresses in Monday’s notice. The grants fund two distinct programs: academies for history and civics teachers, as well as “national activities.”
The shift by the department means that someone seeking the grant funding wouldn’t be any more or less likely to get an award by focusing on the priorities in question, and don’t have to include them.
In addition, the sheer volume of comments, not necessarily what the general tone of those comments are, appears to have played a key role in the department’s shift. In Monday’s notice, the agency says it is continuing to process and respond to the “significant number” of public comments about the grants.
“As a result, it is not possible to issue a notice of final priorities in time to use the priorities” to give certain applicants a competitive edge for fiscal 2021, the department’s notice says.
A federal website has logged more than 35,000 comments about the department’s proposal.
Despite dropping mentions of the 1619 Project and Kendi, it’s also clear the department’s overall view about what the grants should support hasn’t fundamentally changed.
For example, the April proposal for these grants highlights instructional approaches that “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history,” as well as those that “contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
The Monday notice repeats that and other language verbatim from four months ago. Such language about systemic bias and identity-safe environments has helped fuel strife about how schools should approach classes about racism and sexism in America.
All that underscores the fact that while grant proposals stressing such approaches won’t officially get an edge in the process, they could still end up winning funding.
In a blog post from late last week at the department’s website, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reiterated this philosophy with respect to the grants.
“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. “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 department has yet to respond to a question by Education Week as to whether it would try to revive the proposed competitive priorities in some way for the grants in future years, when the agency might be better prepared for a high volume of public comments.