Updated: This article has been updated to include a reference to Republicans’ June 24 letter to Rep. Bobby Scott about an incident that occurred during the House education committee hearing.
The nationwide furor over a legal theory about racism in America spilled over into a congressional hearing Thursday, as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told House Republican lawmakers that his department isn’t pushing or ordering schools to use it in classrooms.
As GOP lawmakers expressed concern that he was backing the use of critical race theory in schools, Cardona stressed to lawmakers that the U.S. Department of Education was not using proposed priorities for history and civics grants to support or require the use of the 1619 Project—a New York Times magazine package of articles that put slavery and its legacy at the center of American history—or the theory of anti-racism in schools.
But he also said that students should be exposed to different perspectives about issues in order to properly grow and develop, and questioned the motivation behind the backlash to how schools are addressing racism and racial equity.
“This is more about politics than programming,” Cardona said Thursday, the first time he appeared before the House education committee as the secretary.
The exchanges during the virtual hearing included an anonymous shout that seemed to accuse a lawmaker of being a racist, drawing an admonishment from the committee’s chairman.
GOP lawmakers warned Cardona about a growing ‘grassroots’ movement
Following former President Donald Trump’s call last year for “patriotic education” in which he also slammed public schools’ approach to history instruction, several states have moved to ban the use of critical race theory in schools and also restrict how teachers address “divisive concepts” involving sexism and racism. The lawmakers behind these proposals have expressed concerns, for example, that schools are inappropriately compelling students to say or do certain things based on their race.
Several GOP lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing cited the Education Department’s proposed grant priorities for a small program supporting history and civics instruction as a key source of their concerns. (Those proposed priorities approvingly cite the 1619 Project and anti-racist Ibram X. Kendi, but don’t mention critical race theory and don’t express support for a Pulitzer Center curriculum based on the 1619 Project.)
Those proposed priorities have attracted thousands of public comments.
GOP lawmakers highlighted the pushback to things like critical race theory as evidence of how dangerous that and other concepts are.
“This is going to be like the next grassroots movement of this country,” said Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., referring to the movement against critical race theory.
However, critics of the restrictive state bills say that they could undermine efforts to address racism in schools. Other say schools aren’t actually using critical race theory, and that cynical political interests are whipping up unfounded anger to inflame cultural divisions, and to stop efforts to teach an accurate version of American history and address racial inequities.
The online hearing featured a striking moment that illustrated just how divisive the issue has become.
As Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., was criticizing a Virginia school district’s approach to public concerns about critical race theory, there was a shout of “racist” that seemed to be directed at Good. It was not immediately clear who shouted this, but when it occurred, the Zoom window for Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., briefly appeared during the hearing, which took place remotely. Norcross himself did not appear in the window, which was blank.
Shortly thereafter, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, appeared to address the incident when he called an interruption of a lawmaker’s allotted time out of order, and reminded committee members that they should be respectful of each other.
Representatives for Norcross and the committee did not provide comments about the incident in response to emailed questions from Education Week.
In a Thursday letter to Scott, all Republicans on the committee condemned the incident, calling it a “smear” of Good. They wrote that while they appreciated Scott’s comments that the remark was inappropriate, “We are extremely concerned that there was no apology made during the hearing for the comment and that it was not withdrawn as is customary” when such remarks are made.
Cardona stressed that his agency does not get involved in curriculum decisions
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said it appeared the department’s proposed grant priorities for the history and civics grants appeared to violate legal prohibitions on official support for or against a curriculum.
Cardona gave no indication that his agency would withdraw the proposed priorities, but stressed that the department was respecting the law.
“We are not promoting curriculum. We are communicating that states and districts have the responsibility to do that,” he said.
Cardona also said he was not aware of whether the 1619 Project curriculum is being taught in schools; the Pulitzer Center said last year that tens of thousands of students in thousands of classrooms have engaged with the curriculum in some way.
But Cardona also said that when students see themselves in what’s being taught and are exposed to a diverse set of perspectives, “They’re more likely to be engaged and more likely to feel comfortable.”
Walberg was unmoved. “The 1619 Project is not a diverse perspective. It defames the history of the United States,” he responded.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., quoted work from Kendi and asked if Cardona if he understood why people were concerned that his department had quoted someone who was radical and outside the mainstream. (Grothman recently introduced legislation that would bar District of Columbia Public Schools from using critical race theory.)
“I trust educators across the country to make decisions about what their communities need,” Cardona responded. “It’s really not the federal government’s role to determine what gets taught.”
Later in the hearing, Cardona complained that he had heard more about critical race theory than how to help students succeed. “That’s what’s going to get the headline,” he said.
Disagreements over the Education Department’s Title IX interpretation
Critical race theory wasn’t the only issue that highlighted divisions between GOP lawmakers and Cardona.
Rep. Mary E. Miller, R-Ill., for example, challenged the Education Department’s recent interpretation of Title IX that said schools violate federal law if they discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
She also asked how schools would be able to stop male students from identifying as female in order to access girls’ restrooms, and said Cardona’s position would undermine girls’ athletics in the service of “extreme gender ideology.”
Cardona stressed that the focus should be on schools building inclusive communities as well as trust from students.
“This is another example that demonstrates a lack of confidence in our educators to be able to meet our students where they are and welcome them into school environments that are free from discrimination and harassment,” Cardona said in response to Miller, who said she was shocked by Cardona’s responses.
“You are on the wrong side of this issue,” she said.