Social Studies

Could President Trump Really Penalize Schools for Teaching the 1619 Project?

By Sarah Schwartz — September 08, 2020 4 min read
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This weekend, President Trump tweeted that California schools would lose education funding if they were teaching the 1619 Project curriculum, a history classroom guide and resources based on the New York Times project of the same name.

In response to a tweet from another user, which said that California schools were using the curriculum, the president wrote: “Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!” (The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment before publication.)

The statement is the latest commentary from the president critiquing study of systemic racism in U.S. schools. In late August, his reelection campaign issued a list of second-term priorities in late August that included the call to “teach American exceptionalism.”

But while Trump’s tweet incited controversy, it would be against the law for the president to follow through with this promise. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the education law that replaced No Child Left Behind before Trump took office, the federal government is prohibited from telling schools what to teach. Federal officials can’t mandate, direct, or control a state, school, or district’s educational standards or content.

The 1619 Project, published in 2019 and spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, argues that the United States as we know it doesn’t originate with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but in 1619: the year that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the continent. The project traces the impact of slavery in the country’s institutions and founding principles. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay in the project.

An accompanying curriculum, distributed through the Pulitzer Center, adapts the project for all grade levels. Education Week’s Madeline Will wrote about the resources when they debuted—they invite students and teachers to examine how the legacy of slavery shapes the country’s present and collective memory.

At the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, the Chicago Public Schools announced that every high school in the district would receive copies of the curriculum to support teaching on slavery. “In order for our students to engage with the issues of today, it is essential that they have an honest accounting of our country’s past,” Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson wrote at the time. The Pulitzer Center has reported that there are schools in all 50 states using the materials.

The curriculum has also drawn fierce criticism from conservative politicians. Republican senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill this summer to ban the use of federal tax dollars to teach the project in schools.

“The entire premise of the New York Times’ factually, historically flawed 1619 Project ... is that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable. I reject that root and branch,” Cotton told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in July.

Trump’s tweet also threatens to withhold funding from states that use the materials. But ESSA prohibits federal officials from mandating curriculum in this way, said Anne Hyslop, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who now works at the Alliance for Excellent Education. The department can’t make existing funding conditional on certain curricula or types of instruction, she said.

Under the law, it can’t even endorse a certain program of study. “You can’t put the federal stamp of approval on a curriculum, or sanction one,” she added.

Republican members of Congress pushed for many of these restrictions, Hyslop said, as part of a backlash to the Common Core State Standards which were finalized in 2010.

“It’s really hard for me, looking through ESSA, to see any way that the Department of Education could take funding away from a state or a district, or use funds to encourage a district to adopt or not adopt a specific curriculum,” she said.

Even though it’s unlikely that the president could actually bar the 1619 Project curriculum from schools, it’s clear that the White House is attempting to influence the ongoing debate on how young people are taught about the country’s legacy—a debate that’s heightened now as teachers search for ways to contextualize this spring’s protests for racial justice after the police killing of George Floyd.

See also: How History Class Divides Us

As my colleague Andrew Ujifusa wrote last month, Trump has also waded into this conversation—with the call to “teach American exceptionalism,” and comments in a Fourth of July speech this year that the nation’s schools teach children to “hate their own country.” The administration also recently instructed federal agencies to end trainings related to “critical race theory” or “white privilege.”

But as uprisings have erupted across the country, students have demanded that schools do more to teach about the origins of systemic racism and police brutality. A history curriculum that implies racism was solved after the Civil Rights movement isn’t good enough, some students have said—they want lessons that acknowledge injustice as a problem of the present moment, not only of the past.

Image: President Donald Trump speaks on the environment at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum Sept. 8 in Jupiter, Fla. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.