Tom Cotton’s About-Face on Education Policy

Tom Cotton’s About-Face on Education Policy
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)

Congress is attempting again to control what’s taught in public schools, circumventing state and local authorities. This time, however, the charge is led by a Republican Senator. 

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Last week, Senator Tom Cotton introduced a bill entitled the Saving American History Act 2020 which would bar federal funding from elementary and secondary schools that use the New York Times’ 1619 Project in their curriculum. In our fiercely partisan cultural climate, the federal government should not attempt to control American history curriculum or dictate what is taught in K-12 classrooms. 

The bill criticizes the 1619 Project stating, “An activist movement is now gaining momentum to deny or obfuscate this history by claiming that America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration but rather on slavery and oppression.” The text continues, “The Federal Government has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the Nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.” 

Conservatives have argued for years that the federal government should not be dictating the content taught in schools. And Senator Cotton used to believe that as well. 

In 2014, then-Representative Cotton co-sponsored a resolution denouncing the specific practice of using federal funding as a way of coercing states into adopting federal education standards and curriculum. That resolution said that, “States and local educational agencies should maintain the right and responsibility of determining educational curricula, programs of instruction, and assessments for elementary and secondary education.”

Back in 2011, when Cotton was running for Congress, he clearly opposed federal meddling in education. His campaign website, according to a Library of Congress archive, had this to say about his position on education policy:

“Washington should not dictate choices to either parents or local school systems…Federal education policy should encourage communities to develop their own curricula and standards, while providing information needed to empower parents, students, and educators. I believe that choice, competition, and freedom will help provide needed reforms to our public schools, as it does in free markets.”

Those are all reasonable and solidly conservative arguments against the federal government dictating national education policy for schools. Federal involvement often removes accountability and control from local school administrators and parents. 

Furthermore, Cotton’s 2014 opposition to the Obama administration’s education policy rejected broad federal educational standards and policies such as conducting teacher evaluations based on test scores. The Senator is now proposing the effective prohibition of an individual piece of curricula. It’s difficult to imagine a more granularly meddlesome federal action. 

What makes the measure even more troublesome is that the 1619 Project is not a single document, but a series of essays articulating multiple ideas about race in American history. Some prominent historians have critiqued historical claims in the Project, especially the argument that America was “founded on slavery” and rebelled against England in order to preserve the institution, but that’s not all the Project has to offer. It spans multiple topics, including an essay on our criminal justice system by the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson and original historical research documenting the forgotten sites of slave auction blocks across the country. If a history teacher wanted to rely on the documents and research from these essays, they would presumably face federal defunding under Senator Cotton’s bill.

Even at the state level, review of public school curriculum can be a politicized process where committees ask publishers to redact or add portions to their textbooks for ideological reasons. For instance, The New York Times reported a story on the differences between the history textbooks used in Texas and California. Review panels in both states asked the publisher of one textbook to make different alterations to topics including the Second Amendment, the Harlem Renaissance, and 1950s suburbia. Clearly there are enough problems with politics unduly influencing curriculum selection. Adding the U.S. Senate to the list of review committees would only make matters worse. 

There’s virtually no chance that this bill gets through the Democrat controlled House. It’s a political statement more than anything else. But the fact that a Republican Senator, who is on the record in favor of decentralizing education policy, saw this as a good move is telling of his political priorities in this fiercely divided time.

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