Threats to Freedom in US Schools Are on the Rise
COMMENTARY: It is clear that this rule will perpetuate critical race theory and the rejection of Catholic moral and doctrinal teaching.
May 19 marked the final date Americans could submit public comments on a new rule of “Proposed Priorities — American History and Civics Education,” set forth by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, a division of the U.S. Department of Education.
This priorities document will be used in future years to award grant money from the federal government (provided by taxpayer dollars and doled out through Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona) to deserving teachers and programs for the purpose of developing “culturally responsive teaching and learning.”
Catholics in the United States have a long history of civic action and a vested interest in improving student acquisition of historical literacy and the skills needed to participate in democracy.
While we suffered discrimination for many decades of America’s growth — read Douglas Brinkley’s excellent biography of Blessed Michael J. McGivney for a small sampling — it was precisely the structures of the American system that freed Catholics and other minority groups to expand their freedoms, so that we, their heirs, can live our faith in public and raise our families according to our consciences.
Jonathan Butcher of the Heritage Foundation writes, “Schools are a reflection of culture and national character and should be institutions that transmit these ideas through the teaching of history and government. These topics are generally considered ‘civic’ instruction, a subject that is sorely neglected — an opinion shared by those on both sides of the partisan divide. Fewer than one in four eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency on a 2018 national civics test, a figure that has not increased in more than 20 years.”
The impulse to improve civic education is not only honorable but absolutely necessary for the future of Catholics (and all groups) in the United States.
Not every effort to follow that impulse, however, deserves support. The Department of Education’s Proposed Priorities are intended to expand the reach of such programs as the Education for American Democracy (EAD) by means of sweeping federal funding and regulation. Far from improving civic education, these efforts will radically transform the very definition of civics from the study of the American republic to indoctrination in anti-Catholic and ultimately inhuman thought systems.
According to the Proposed Priorities, teachers and nonprofits will be rewarded money for projects that “incorporate teaching and learning practices that reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students” and “create inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
Students must be taught to “critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts” and validate “diversity, identities, and experiences of all students.” The language is vague enough that with the right mental gymnastics it could be interpreted as rightly pluralistic and even patriotic.
If you want to know where a federal bill or proposal or order is headed, however, you must first look to the citations. The Proposed Priorities boast a short list of resources that includes the 1619 Project and extreme critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Interpreted by these and other sources cited in the Priorities, it is clear that this rule will perpetuate critical race theory and the rejection of Catholic moral and doctrinal teaching.
What kind of programs will the priorities favor?
The EAD provides a sample of lesson plans, classes, and teacher formation programs that, on first glance, endorse the robust education in civic life that is the necessary ground for the freedoms we have always enjoyed in this nation. Terms such as “civic friendship,” “civil dialogue” and “productive disagreement” appear consonant with the great statesmen of our nation and the political philosophers of the Catholic tradition.
In order to understand what the EAD is proposing, however, as with the Priorities, we must look at who interprets these terms. Jonathan Butcher writes that the EAD includes lessons developed, for example, by Learning for Justice, founded and funded by the problematic Southern Poverty Law Center.
Lessons call for students to practice “deconstruction,” redefining words in founding American documents to “discover oppression.” The EAD roadmap directs teachers and schools to prioritize instruction in gender identity as central to civics instruction. A lesson from the Smithsonian uses critical race theory to encourage students to identify themselves as “oppressors” and “oppressed” based on the color of their skin.
These programs are directly at odds with Catholic social teaching, Christian anthropology and the free society that has made the EAD itself possible.
Programs such as the EAD require significant funding, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has proposed a bill allocating $835 million for civic education grants. Estimates for a complete funding of the EAD and its coalition top $1 billion in federal spending. This means that, as with the disastrous Common Core, it will be the federal authority directing the implementation of an education initiative affecting individual students in public schools around the country. That is, the state governments are simply the extension of the executive branch that has declared its intentions in the Proposed Priorities of the Department of Education.
Money is power, but in terms of forming and education healthy and happy children to become great statesmen, money does not mean success. The U.S. spends 35% above the average per student for countries in the developed world. While federal spending increases exponentially, student proficiency scores continue to either flatline (as in mathematics) or plummet (as in civics). Increasing funds to critical theory-based federal initiatives misses the crises. The EAD is Don Quixote fighting windmills as invaders ravage the countryside.
But there is hope, and more parents and local educators are speaking out to resist these incursions into their schools. After years of precipitous decline and identity crisis, pockets of Catholic schools are providing a real alternative to public schools controlled by the Department of Education, critical theory ideology and federal bureaucratic bloat.
Catholics should be aware and speak out where possible against incursions of federal power into our local communities and support those fighting to protect those “zones of freedom” where our children can thrive.