'Elaborate wordplay': Critics debate Department of Education retreat from critical race theory

House Education Committee's top Republican tells secretary to purge CRT-related policies and materials.
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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona
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Faced with nationwide pushback against its plan to prioritize grant funding for American history and civics programs informed by critical race theory (CRT), the Department of Education clarified its thinking. Perhaps.

Secretary Miguel Cardona's blog post on "invitational" priorities in grant competitions drew polarized interpretations among critics of CRT, who either claimed the agency backed off its plan or simply used deceptive language to create the impression that it backed off.

Among those in the former camp: House Education and Labor Committee ranking member Virginia Foxx and Sen. John Thune, both Republicans. Foxx is keeping the pressure on Cardona, telling him that "critical race theory and related policies and materials should not be referenced, referred, or recommended to any students, teachers, or educational agencies."

The proposed rule said applicants for grant money must show how their projects consider "systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history" and incorporate "racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives." 

It favorably mentioned Boston University professor Ibram Kendi, the foremost popularizer of "anti-racism," and the New York Times' 1619 Project, which is also a school curriculum offered through the Pulitzer Center.

Contrary to the perception of its proposed rule, the program "has not, does not, and will not dictate or recommend specific curriculum be introduced or taught in classrooms," Cardona wrote July 16. "Those decisions are — and will continue to be — made at the local level."

Though the department is inviting submissions that "incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning" and "improve students' information literacy skills," Cardona said applicants aren't required to address these priorities and will "gain no competitive advantage" if they do.

Foxx said the department "changed its approach to grant funding because parents, students, and Republican leaders stood up in defense of our nation's history and legacy." While Cardona gave up "overt preferential treatment" for "anti-American agendas," Foxx expects him to continue "the administration's crusade to push Critical Race Theory in our public schools."

In a floor speech Tuesday, Thune said the department reversed its plans to prefer programs that reflect the "radical, leftist ideology" of CRT. But that reversal "was cloaked in bureaucratic language, leaving room for a future flip-flop by the administration."

Parents Defending Education, which said it facilitated a third of the comments in the proceeding, "applauds" Cardona's decision to withdraw the "requirement that grantees incorporate curriculum and instruction" in the vein of Kendi and the 1619 Project.

"It is our hope that this change is a sign of the administration's recommitment to historical accuracy and civics education over ideology and advocacy," the group said, claiming "the vast majority" of nearly 34,000 comments opposed "making racism and slavery the centerpiece of American history."

The National Association of Scholars doesn't think the administration has "backed one inch away" from its agenda, president Peter Wood told The Federalist. "They have done what they usually do, which is elaborate wordplay. This is one more attempted hoodwink in public."

Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who wrote model legislation to ban politically motivated "action civics" in schools, called Cardona's blog post "nothing more than a shallow attempt to parry public criticism."

He pointed The Federalist toward President Biden's instructions to agencies "to fight 'systemic racism,' making CRT the basis of administration policy."

The Department of Education issued a clearer mea culpa in response to Rep. Foxx's outrage that it promoted the Abolitionist Teaching Network in its school reopening guidance

Founded by University of Georgia education professor Bettina Love a year ago, the network's guide calls on educators to "disrupt Whiteness and other forms of oppression" and implies academic standards should be lowered to promote "liberation" for non-Asian racial minorities.

The department linked the guide in a sentence on "intentional conversations related to race and social emotional learning." Following a report by Fox News, it removed the sentence entirely. The guide's inclusion was an "error in a lengthy document," the department told Fox News, and it "does not endorse the recommendations of this group, nor do they reflect our policy positions."

The incident shows why CRT opponents should focus much more on Love's influence, according to Kurtz, the crusader against action civics.

Her 2019 book "We Want to Do More Than Survive" "is arguably the single most comprehensive and up-to-date guide to the ideology of the CRT movement in education," Kurtz wrote in National Review Friday, claiming "there is no way the Biden administration can successfully disavow" her.

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Rep. Foxx questioned whether the department only called the Abolitionist Teaching Network's inclusion "an error" because Fox News highlighted it. "The Department has established a pattern of supporting critical race theory-related information and material that divides our students and  communities based on race," she wrote in a letter to Cardona July 23.

The secretary "notably failed to denounce critical race theory or the harm it does to the effort to end racial injustice" when he testified before the House Education and Labor Committee in June, Foxx wrote. 

Providing a two-week deadline, she asked the secretary to "personally review all of the citations made in the COVID handbooks" and devise staff guidance against promoting CRT to any audience. Foxx also requested "all communications among department staff, Love, her network or "anyone who might have been associated with her." 

Audra McGeorge, communications director for Education and Labor Committee Republicans, told Just the News Friday that Foxx had not received a response to her letter a week later. Department spokesperson Jim Bradshaw said he was checking "to see if we have received" Foxx's letter.