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Republicans Want Federal Funding Cuts to Schools Using ‘1619 Project'—But There’s a Twist

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 15, 2021 4 min read
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 20, 2021.
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Congressional Republicans once again want to cut federal funding for schools that use lessons based on the 1619 Project—but they don’t want big programs serving special education students and others to be affected.

The legislation was introduced this week by nine GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. It would decrease federal funds for schools and districts using curriculum inspired by the 2019 New York Times Magazine series that puts slavery and racism at the center of America’s experience and public-policy record.

The bill would require the U.S. secretary of education and other cabinet-level leaders to identify the cost of teaching 1619 Project lessons, then cut the corresponding amount of federal aid to schools or school districts.

However, the bill would shield programs supporting students with disabilities and school meals from any such cuts, along with “any other program for low-income students.” On its face, that language would exempt the two biggest K-12 programs by dollar amount at the Education Department: Title I services for disadvantaged students, as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees school nutrition services.

In effect, the bill would require funding cuts in certain instances without affecting major programs for poor students and those who are entitled to special education services. These programs are relatively popular in Congress, and local school districts generally consider them crucial to their budgets and operations. They support everything from breakfast and preschool to individualized education programs. Title I money can also be used to pay for curriculum.

The Saving American History Act has no real shot of getting traction in this Democratically controlled Congress. (GOP lawmakers introduced it in both the House and Senate). The federal government also is prohibited from dictating curriculum to schools or punishing them for using certain lessons.

However, through this “messaging” bill, the senators are capitalizing on the roiling debate over how schools address racism in the classroom and beyond.

GOP lawmakers in several states have moved to prohibit schools from using critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that says racism is embedded in legal systems and public policy and is not just the product of individual prejudices, even as many educators say schools aren’t using it.

Some state lawmakers have also sought to ban schools from using the 1619 Project. Its critics have highlighted attacks on the project from historians who’ve called it unbalanced and incomplete, yet its supporters say it offers a sorely needed perspective on the pervasive influence of racism on American life.

Proposals targeting critical race theory and the 1619 Project are part of a broad effort to restrict how teachers address “divisive” concepts, which has once again put educators at the center of a major cultural clash. Bitter disputes about critical race theory, which are connected to debates about how schools should consider diverse historical perspectives and identities in their lessons, have also reached local school districts. Former President Donald Trump attracted national attention to these issues last year when he denounced social studies lessons in public schools as “left-wing indoctrination” and promoted “patriotic education.”

“Activists in schools want to teach our kids to hate America and hate each other using discredited, Critical Race Theory curricula like the 1619 Project,” said Cotton, who authored legislation last year that also targeted the 1619 Project and is the lead sponsor of this year’s bill, in a statement about the legislation. “Federal funds should not pay for activists to masquerade as teachers and indoctrinate our youth.”

Cotton’s office did not respond to questions about which programs precisely would be shielded from cuts under the legislation, and why he and GOP senators wanted those major K-12 programs protected.

In addition to Cotton and McConnell, the Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.; Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.; Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. The House version was introduced by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga.

The bill does not single out the 1619 Project curriculum from the Pulitzer Center by name, but refers only to “the 1619 Project initiative of the New York Times.” It’s unclear what classroom lessons and curricula would be covered by that language. Chicago schools have used the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project curriculum in lessons. The center said last year its curriculum was being used in 4,500 classrooms and that tens of thousands of students were engaging with it in some way.

This isn’t the first time in 2021 GOP lawmakers have homed in on this general issue. GOP lawmakers have also sought to bar federal support for critical race theory in schools, as part of a backlash to the Biden administration’s proposed priorities for a grant supporting history and civics instruction. Those proposed priorities reference the 1619 Project. McConnell has also written to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona asking him to withdraw them. That Biden grant proposal does not mention critical race theory.

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