Updated: This article was updated to include a statement from the U.S. Department of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education should scrap its proposed priorities for a small American history and civics grant that reference anti-racist scholarship and a high-profile series of stories about slavery, the top Senate Republican says.
In a letter to the department, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted the blueprint for the American History and Civics Education grants pitched by the Biden administration, which draw inspiration from, among other places, the 1619 Project, a collection of New York Times Magazine articles from two years ago, and the academic Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racist ideas. The Senate minority leader said the proposed priorities don’t reflect congressional intent for the programs and were based on inaccurate and inflammatory interpretations of the nation’s history.
“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil,” McConnell wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, adding that Congress would never pass any legislation reflecting the proposed priorities for the grants.
He called on the department to abandon its proposal, which he said violated the congressional intent for the grant program to equip students with “the vibrant patriotism brought forth by a balanced assessment of our imperfect but exceptional nation.”
The letter, first obtained and published by Politico, reflects recent criticisms about the Biden administration’s proposed priorities for the $5.3 million grant program, which is a tiny portion of the Education Department’s $74 billion budget.
But more importantly, McConnell’s comments amplify a burgeoning dispute over the influence of the 1619 Project and anti-racist ideas in the nation’s classrooms.
A curriculum from the Pulitzer Center based on the 1619 Project, which was spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and won a Pulitzer Prize, has found traction in classrooms, and many educators say that and new critiques of racism, identity, and diversity in America can be important material for students.
Yet critics say instruction based on the work from those like Hannah-Jones and Kendi warps U.S. history and ideals, and also sends damaging messages to students about the importance of racial identity and bias in American society.
The Biden Education Department’s proposed priorities for the history and civics grants note both the 1619 Project and anti-racist concepts, and say instruction funded by the grants should account for discrimination and bias in policy, and focus on the importance of diverse identities and perspectives.
The federal government is barred from mandating or prohibiting school curriculum, but that hasn’t stopped American history and civics classes from becoming the subject of an intensifying cultural and political clash.
In response to a request for comment, an Education Department spokesperson said the agency’s background for the proposed priorities include “examples of how institutions and individuals are finally acknowledging the legacy of systemic inequities in this country and paying attention to it.”
Last year, President Donald Trump attacked the `1619 Project and public schools’ approach to teaching history, saying they brainwashed children with malicious “left-wing indoctrination.” He created the 1776 Commission as his official vehicle for his position; the commission produced a report about American history that the Biden administration quickly disowned.
Several states have considered legislation to prohibit schools from using curriculum based on the 1619 Project. In addition, states have mulled whether to restrict educators’ ability to teach “divisive concepts” focused on issues such as racism and sexism.
Presidential administrations can put different priorities on competitive grants. In 2017, for example, the Trump Education Department prioritized proposals for American History and Civics Education-National Activities grant funding that included “high-quality, accessible online courses” or other digital tools.
As of Friday, the Education Department’s proposal for the history and civics grants had attracted more than 1,300 comments. The public comment period closes on May 19.