Education is not typically a high-profile policy area for administrations, but it’s proving problematic for President Joe Biden as his team pushes teaching plans Republicans view as dangerously “woke.”
Biden’s first days in office were peppered with concerns he was too prone to the whims of teachers unions as some groups threatened to derail talks over returning to in-person instruction unless their members were vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Now, another classroom clash is brewing. However, this time it’s over the Biden administration’s efforts to incentivize so-called “woke” lessons for teachers and students alike by offering federal grant money.
Biden’s Education Department this week proposed introducing two new priorities for funding covering American history and civics education programs and activities. The first strives to elevate projects that “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives” into their syllabi, while the other aims to improve “information literacy.”
Biden is approaching a crucial moment for public education, according to Republican strategist John Feehery.
Parents have lost faith in their local school districts during the pandemic because of teachers unions, which “have done everything in their power to keep schools closed, just as they collect their paychecks,” Feehery told the Washington Examiner. More schools are providing in-person instruction as vaccine rates increase and Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus spending package funds are dispersed.
“Kids have to make up for lost time because of the union-imposed COVID disaster, but instead of focusing on opening schools, the Biden administration is focused on creating an ideological curriculum to please their far-left progressive wing of the party,” he said.
For Feehery, once press secretary for former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, parents preferred their children to be prepared for college or a well-paying job and not well-versed in “critical race theory nonsense.”
“They don’t want this political balderdash. I think it is politically tone-deaf on their part, and I think it will hurt them in swing-state districts,” he said.
Former Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp criticized the rule as “nothing more than an attempt to misuse hard-earned taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate America’s children with even more anti-American nonsense.”
“The end result is not likely to be a Marxist revolution, but rather, solid Republican gains across America in 2021 and 2022,” said Huelskamp, an ex-Tea Party Caucus chairman and House Education Committee member.
The Education Department’s proposed rule could apply to American history and civics education programs and activities, including the presidential and congressional academies, as soon as this fiscal year. The public comment period closes May 19.
The first priority is supposed to underscore how history and civics education can convey “the vital role of diversity in our nation’s democracy” to the next generation, according to the pitched language. That encompasses “the consequences of slavery” and “the significant contributions of black Americans to our society.”
“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 rule states of “identity-safe” spaces.
For Republican operative-turned-Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney, the rule’s Ibram X. Kendi reference is “a red flag.” Kendi, a scholar-activist, suggests in his anti-racist theory that affirmative action opposition is inherently racist.
Last year, almost six in 10 California voters rejected a ballot initiative repealing Proposition 209, Pitney said. That proposition bans the consideration of race in state public government hiring, contracting, and education. More specifically, Pitney cited the three-quarters of respondents who told Pew Research Center in 2019 that race should not be a factor in college admissions.
“To say that this position is politically problematic is the understatement of 2021,” Pitney added.
The second priority’s objective is to try to teach students how to “critically evaluate the materials they encounter by developing their information literacy” so they can “meaningfully participate in our democracy and distinguish fact from misinformation.” That part of the rule appears to be a critique of former President Donald Trump, who contested the results of the 2020 election based on an unfounded claim of widespread fraud.
The push for a “woke” syllabus was previewed early in Biden’s term when he signed an executive order directing his administration to adopt a “whole-of-government” approach to addressing racial inequity. It is also a pivot from Trump administration initiatives such as the 1776 Commission, which was comprised of an advisory committee dedicated to “patriotic education.”
Racial inequity became a pillar of Biden’s 2020 campaign after George Floyd’s death last May. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes while arresting him.
Footage of Floyd’s death instigated protests against police brutality and racial injustice around the country and world, forcing many people and organizations to confront issues caused by race. Businesses, for instance, released statements regarding their stance on the matter.
Biden’s 100-day target is to ensure a majority of schools are offering in-person instruction five days a week. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday the administration is “confident” it will meet that benchmark by April 30.