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Social Studies

‘Divisive’ or ‘Necessary’? Comments on Grant Priorities Show Divide on Teaching About Race

By Evie Blad & Andrew Ujifusa — May 19, 2021 8 min read
Illustration of a cluster of faces.

Proposed priorities for a small group of federal history and civics grants had received more than 15,000 public comments by a Wednesday deadline and reflect the divisive national debate over how schools should discuss race, racism, and the nation’s history.

Thousands of those comments appear to have been generated by a form created by an organization that has taken aim at what it calls “woke” classroom curricula.

The April U.S. Department of Education proposal, outlining discretionary priorities for recipients of American History and Civics Education grants, said it would prioritize instruction that discusses bias, discrimination, and diverse perspectives. It cited scholar and anti-racism activist Ibram X. Kendi, and the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine project that highlights the legacy of slavery as a central element in America’s story.

The proposal has been criticized by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as “divisive nonsense,” and some members of Congress have even filed legislation in opposition to it.

The wave of public comments comes as Republican state lawmakers around the country seek to restrict how schools discuss race and “divisive issues.” They also follow a year of demonstrations and a public reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

History cannot teach us anything if it is destroyed or buried beneath denial.

Comments in support of the proposed priorities said they reflect a necessary focus for school history discussions that teach students to think critically about the nation’s past.

“History cannot teach us anything if it is destroyed or buried beneath denial,” a teacher from North Carolina wrote.

But thousands of comments in opposition included duplicate statements, apparently submitted through calls to action from advocacy groups and news organizations. Those statements attacked the proposal as “Marxism,” and overly divisive. Many questioned the reality of systemic racism in American society.

“I do not want my tax dollars used in public schools to teach critical race theory, which pits individuals against each other and encourages students to judge each other on the color of their skin,” said one comment, submitted over 700 times by various people.

Controversial federal grant proposal comes as nation debates race, history

Although the grant proposal does not mention “critical race theory,” the term appeared in more than 4,600 submitted comments. As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk writes, critical race theory is a term dating back to the 1970s that suggests “racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

For some, it has become shorthand for any discussion of race or equality. Some GOP lawmakers have used the term as a cable news talking point in recent months.

The federal proposal does, however, quote Kendi as saying, “Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.”

The proposal goes on to say: “It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students.”

The grant priorities are not a mandate for what all public schools should teach. Rather, they are stated preferences for recipients of a small amount of federal grants administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The American History and Civics grants received $5.3 million in federal funding this fiscal year, out of a roughly $74 billion budget for the agency.

Proposal draws opposition

It’s not uncommon for Federal Register documents to attract duplicate public comments, which are often a sign that organizations have launched a “call to action,” asking interested members or readers to submit prewritten text via an online form or by copying and pasting from their website.

An abundance of such comments can help demonstrate the level of outside interest a federal proposal has generated, sometimes from political or advocacy groups. In this case, it appears one group, Parents Defending Education, drew thousands of repetitive comments through its website.

The organization opposes what it calls “woke” curricula and efforts to divide students and others into “oppressor” and “oppressed” groups. It has recently filed federal civil rights complaints against school districts, arguing that they committed discrimination when they flagged concerns about systemic racism in their schools. Critics called those complaints “malicious.”

Searching through comments in opposition to the proposal, Education Week identified at least seven different comments for which versions were submitted at least 700 times each. Those comments all appear to have been generated by users on a form hosted by Parents Defending Education, which displays new comment text each time the web page is refreshed. That form was repeatedly linked in conservative media and shared on Twitter.

I disapprove that the U.S. Department of Education is promoting a harmful agenda that is driven by racial identity and division.

“I disapprove that the U.S. Department of Education is promoting a harmful agenda that is driven by racial identity and division,” says one of those comments, submitted more than 750 times. Another criticizes priorities that “obsess over bias and discriminatory policies in America.”

Other comments generated through the page question the accuracy of the 1619 Project and call Kendi’s “anti-racist” approach a form of discrimination in itself.

“The sweeping racial discrimination Kendi advocates violates federal anti-discrimination law, which should not be funded with federal resources,” says a comment shared more than 750 times.

Hundreds of other comments appear to have been written by individuals on their own, but they share some common themes, like mentions of “Marxism,” “brainwashing,” and “indoctrination.”

One commenter, who identified himself as Adam Kissel—a former deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs in the Trump administration— said the grant priorities use terms that may be inconsistently interpreted, which will make it difficult for reviewers to determine which applications are best suited to win grants.

“It is common that interpretations of bias are biased themselves,” he wrote.

Twenty state attorneys general also wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, asking him to either not adopt the proposed priorities, or to spell out that the grants can’t support the teaching of critical race theory.

“The implementation of these priorities will, in practice, lead to racial and ethnic division and indeed more discrimination,” the attorneys general wrote in their May 19 letter.

They also said that the proposal defied congressional intent for the grants.

Supporters call for ‘an accurate account of American history’

Commenters who wrote in support of the priorities included teachers and parents who said schools are overdue for teaching history in a more inclusive and critical way. Some organizations have criticized U.S. schools for using curriculum that omits or glosses over eras like Reconstruction.

“We believe the one who has power,” wrote one mother from Michigan, quoting the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. “He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?”

Asking students to consider the lens through which history is written will help them to be more critical thinkers, the mother wrote.

We will not all still agree on certain issues, but when you can hear and listen to new perspectives, I believe you challenge yourself and become a more critical thinker.

“We will not all still agree on certain issues, but when you can hear and listen to new perspectives, I believe you challenge yourself and become a more critical thinker,” the comment said.

Other commenters included teachers who said learning about history helps students to be more engaged.

“History that is not taught is bound to be forgotten,” wrote a teacher from Washington. “People without a voice will be left without power, without knowledge, without a stake in our future. That is not the America I want my kids growing up in. We must do better and we can do better.”

One anonymous commenter said schools need to teach all American history, including events like the creation of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and Jim Crow laws.

Still other commenters, including parents and educators, said students need more experience learning to talk about race and its effects.

“Race and racism have got to be ‘talkable,’” wrote one Indiana parent. “If they are not, then we will never be able to move ahead as a country and community.”

Politicians seek to seize momentum

Reactions to the grant the proposal spotlight a divide in the country and between the two major political parties. Former President Donald Trump highlighted “teaching American exceptionalism” as a priority. By contrast, President Joe Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, previously supported efforts in Connecticut to require high schools to offer Black and Latino studies courses and has been outspoken about inequality in the nation’s schools.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have channeled ongoing controversy about the grants and what students learn about racism and bias.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., introduced legislation May 12 that would prohibit federal funding from supporting the proposed grant priorities “or any other priority or requirement related to the teaching of Critical Race Theory.” The same day, Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., introduced legislation to amend the Every Student Succeeds Act—the main federal K-12 law—making a similar prohibition related to critical race theory.

And legislation from Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, introduced two days later, would restrict the teaching of critical race theory at federal institutions. Owens also introduced a resolution that “highlights the dangers of teaching CRT in U.S. schools.”

All three GOP lawmakers are members of the House education committee.

Separately, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told Cardona in a May appropriations hearing that the proposed grant priorities and the uproar around them could undermine bipartisan legislation to bolster civics education backed by him and other lawmakers. Backlash to that bill, which Cole and others introduced in the last Congress, has subsequently grown, the Washington Post reported, due to fears that it will be used to push radical viewpoints related to critical race theory.

That bill, the Civics Secures Democracy Act, does not include any reference to critical race theory.

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