President Donald Trump stamped his imprint on the contentious debate over American history and how it’s taught last week by deriding the “left-wing indoctrination” in schools and announcing the creation of a national commission to promote “patriotic education.” It was part of Trump’s ongoing rhetorical focus on what schools teach as he campaigns for reelection. But his criticism of the 1619 Project—a series of essays in the New York Times magazine that place slavery and its legacy at the center of American history—and its place in classrooms clashes with his 2016 campaign platform for education, or an executive order from his own administration.
As our colleague Sarah Schwartz wrote recently, the federal government is barred from rewarding or punishing schools for using a specific curriculum, and it can’t mandate that schools teach history or any other subject in any particular way. That limitation on Washington’s role in the classroom has enjoyed bipartisan support for years.
A Trump administration executive order issued in April 2017 explicitly endorses this view. “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to protect and preserve State and local control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, and personnel of educational institutions, schools, and school systems,” the order states. It goes on to cite the Every Student Succeeds Act—the main federal law governing K-12 schools—and other statutes.
The order frames this in general as well as legal terms by stressing how “Federal interference” in such matters is prohibited.
The order then directs the education secretary to examine whether federal regulations and guidance “comply with Federal laws that prohibit the Department from exercising any direction, supervision, or control over areas subject to State and local control, including ... the curriculum or program of instruction of any elementary and secondary school and school system.”
Four years ago, Trump was unambiguous about who should control education and who should not. “There won’t be education from Washington, D.C. There’ll be education locally,” he said in a February 2016 campaign video, adding praise for parents and local school boards. “Education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education,” Trump said in a video a month earlier. Those remarks were consistent with the common view among conservatives and Republican politicians that the federal government shouldn’t play a big role in K-12 education.
In those videos and elsewhere, Trump leveraged the idea of locally controlled education as an attack on the Common Core State Standards. For years, many conservatives have said the Obama administration crossed a line by coercing states into using the content standards, which were developed outside Washington and don’t constitute a curriculum.
In his remarks over the summer, including last week’s speech at the National Archives, Trump was not explicitly calling for an end to legal prohibitions on federal involvement in education. Yet his remarks had a markedly different tone and message from a few years ago. A person who only paid attention to Trump’s remarks about education in the last few months might be surprised to learn about his 2017 executive order and his 2016 campaign rhetoric.
In a separate event last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said state and local education officials were in the best place to make decisions about curriculum, but did stress the importance of curriculum that “actually honors and respects our history and embraces all of the parts of our history.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Monday about whether his position has changed, and for more details about the education commission he announced last week. Bloomberg reported over the weekend that Trump has pushed for companies involved in a deal for the social media app TikTok to provide $5 billion for that commission’s work.
Some history teachers and organizations that represent those educators have pushed back on the president’s comments. In a statement last week, for example, the National Council for Social Studies said it “resoundingly rejects any effort by the federal government to silence social studies curriculum that explicitly addresses the centrality of slavery in the historical narrative of the United States.”
Yet others have indicated that while they’re uncomfortable with Trump’s involvement in the issue, there are legitimate concerns about how history classes balance competing interpretations of the nation’s past, especially given the 1619 Project’s growing impact in classrooms as the basis for curricula. And school choice advocates say providing parents with options about how children learn, and thus choices for their classes about American history, provides a solution to questions about how presidents and others in power should talk about classroom instruction.
Photo: President Donald Trump speaks with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during a workforce/apprenticeship discussion in 2017. --Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP