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Cole Urges Education Secretary Cardona to Withdraw Promotion of Critical Race Theory

May 17, 2021
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Last week, Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the Biden Administration to withdraw its proposed priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs published in the Federal Register last month. These priorities include introducing critical race theory and elevating the widely disputed ideas put forward by the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

Earlier this year, Cole joined in the bipartisan and bicameral introduction of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which is designed to strengthen and expand civics education nationwide. While the legislation prohibits the mandate of any national curriculum, Cole raised concerns about the impact the Biden Administration’s priorities for existing Department of Education programs could have on the legislation if enacted.

The exchange between Congressman Cole and Secretary Cardona in a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which prompted this letter can be viewed here.

The full letter is available here and excerpts are below:

Dear Secretary Cardona,

I write to urge you to withdraw the proposed priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs that were published in the Federal Register on April 19, 2021. It is clear from the content of the priorities, as well as the accompanying justification for their proposal, that they will do little more than erode bipartisan support for expanding civics education in the United States by promoting questionable, divisive, and politicized scholarship.

It is no secret that civics education in America is in crisis. Only a quarter of school children have demonstrated proficiency in civics according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students scored even lower on the NAEP’s history assessment.  Furthermore, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center determined that 75 percent of Americans could not accurately identify the three branches of government, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found only 36 percent of Americans could pass the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ naturalization test – a test that nearly 98 percent of immigrant test-takers pass.   

For this reason, I partnered with colleagues in the House and Senate, representing both Republicans and Democrats, to introduce the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would provide $1 billion annually toward promoting civics education in elementary and secondary education.  This bill represents bipartisan consensus regarding the need to address civics illiteracy and to educate America’s youth on her founding principles, documents, and system of governance.

It is my commitment to civics education that leads me to oppose your department’s proposed priorities. These priorities do nothing to ameliorate this pressing problem and threaten to upend bipartisan support for increasing investments in civics education. In the proposed priorities, your department lauds The New York Times’ 1619 Project as an example of “teaching and learning that reflects the breadth and depth of our Nation’s diverse history” and demands that grant applicants incorporate practices that highlight our “ongoing national reckoning with systemic racism.” It also cites Ibram X. Kendi and his views on “anti-racism.” 

These references and statements are concerning for a number of reasons. As a former history professor, I certainly support offering diverse perspectives in education, and the goal of the 1619 Project to elevate oft-marginalized stories and individuals in American history is understandable. However, to cite this project as accurate historical analysis is to do damage to history education in American schools because of its well-documented errors.

Civics education is meant to inform our nation’s students on the principles and history of our founding and system of governance. It is meant to foster civic participation and to unite Americans of different races, faiths, and backgrounds around a set of common ideals, forging “out of many, one.” In your appearance before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, you endorsed this idea, sharing, “Yes, we have a divided country, but our education system is going to unite us. Again, the goal here is to really build community.”

If the goal is unity and to build community, these proposed priorities will not achieve it. These priorities are deeply divisive, and the elevation of dubious historical scholarship suggests the importance of political narrative over historical fact in civics education. Moreover, the American people do not want federal mandates on the content of their children’s education material. In our hearing, your answers on the topic were both contradictory and unclear, especially when you stated the department cannot mandate curriculum but then admitted it could issue certain priorities it wants grantees to include in their applications. These answers are sharply at odds with one another.

I am a member of the Chickasaw Nation. My great-great grandfather was forcibly removed from Mississippi where his family had lived for 500 years. At age 14, he was marched 800 miles to Indian Territory. He and his family lost everything, and my family lost everything again when the state was opened to white settlement and tribal governments were all but dissolved.

But I also know the other side of American history. My great aunt Te Ata, a Chickasaw storyteller and performing artist, has her portrait in the state capital and a 12-foot statue at the college from which she graduated. She delivered the first state entertainment in the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House in March 1933 and performed before the King and Queen of England and the Roosevelts at Hyde Park in 1938. My Chickasaw uncle, whose name I bear, fought at Bataan, was part of the Death March, and survived Japanese prison camps. My father was a career noncommissioned officer, my mom was the first Native American woman elected to the Oklahoma State Senate, and I now serve in Congress. My great-great and great grandfathers, the Chief Clerk of the Chickasaw Supreme Court and the Treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation, respectively, would never have believed it. I hardly believe it myself.

That is what I am interested in celebrating — the nation and the institutions that made that journey possible, even in the face of adversity. I understand that America is imperfect. But I also know that it is on a journey to becoming “a more perfect Union.”

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