President Trump’s ‘patriotic education’ commission can’t actually tell schools what to teach

September 22, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

President Donald Trump’s controversial move to create a “patriotic education” commission late last week drew criticism, with critics accusing the Trump administration of whitewashing U.S. history. The commission, along with a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop a “pro-American curriculum,” is intended to rebuff the teaching of critical race theory, which Trump labeled “a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.”

The “1776 Commission” reflects Republican dissatisfaction with a growing emphasis on race and civil rights education in American schools. Trump in particular took aim at the New York Times’ ongoing 1619 Project—which details slavery’s impact on America’s founding and subsequent growth, and has been incorporated in a number of school curriculums across the country—saying it “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” This isn’t the first time the President has taken aim at the project; earlier this month, Trump threatened to cut federal funding to California schools for using the project in public school curriculums.

Still, in terms of directing schools to incorporate his “pro-American curriculum,” the federal government has no authority over what schools can and cannot teach.

School curriculums are primarily under the jurisdiction of states. They establish, set, and regulate curriculums and provide guidance on teaching methods and instructional materials, like textbooks. The federal government, meanwhile, deals more with access to education and safeguarding the constitutional rights of teachers and students. An example of this is the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which applies to schooling in terms of providing equal access to all children regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or disability.

“The federal government does not set curricula,” 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones told CNN on Sunday. “Clearly Trump sees this as a tool in the arsenal of the culture war. It’s not as if our children need to be saved from a history that overplays the role of slavery.”

A lack of national education policy has actually prompted calls for the federal government to take a more active role in K–12 education. The federal government contributes just 8% of an estimated $1.15 trillion in national education funding, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Some see Trump’s latest rhetoric as less an expression of genuine concern over education policy, and more as a way to embolden supporters ahead of a contentious presidential election.

“There’s nothing particularly new about this latest shot across the bow in the United States’ divisive culture war, apart from the President using his bully pulpit to make it,” argued Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor. “Trump can’t exactly rewrite textbooks and curriculums, which are the province of the states and local districts. But it’s yet another dynamite charge to stoke a nativist base.”

With the election just six weeks away, Trump may very well see “patriotic education” as a ploy to energize his base. Currently, he trails Democratic challenger Joe Biden by nearly seven points in FiveThirtyEight’s national poll tracker. But in terms of tangible change to American education policy, the 1776 Commission will likely remain a largely political gesture.

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