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Montana education board member calls 1619 Project 'untrue history'
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Montana education board member calls 1619 Project 'untrue history'

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During a Thursday joint meeting of the state Board of Public Education and Board of Regents, a BPE member called curriculum from the 1619 Project “untrue history.”

The 1619 Project is a collection of journalism from the New York Times "intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life,” as described by the Times’ editor in chief Jake Silverstein.

Earlier this year, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen at the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen issued an opinion saying the teaching of critical race theory violates the state and federal constitutions. The order was panned by groups like the ACLU of Montana and Montana Federation of Public Employees, and school districts said it generally didn’t change anything because it mostly re-stated that teachers could not discriminate against students.

Knudsen’s opinion in a footnote made clear teaching the 1619 Project’s curriculum "is nonetheless protected by the First Amendment and it is reserved for policymakers to decide if it belongs in classrooms.” The opinion did call the project part of “fraudulent curricula that do not violate civil rights laws.”

Member Jane Lee Hamman did not say during the Thursday meeting which parts of the 1619 Project she found were “untrue history.” She did not return a call for further comment Friday afternoon. Knudsen's opinion cites a letter to the editor sent to the New York Times from a group of historians critiquing the project.

Teachers around the country across grade levels have used the 1619 Project in various capacities for education of students and some organizations have developed guides to use the materials in schools.

Hamman, who was appointed to the Board of Public Education by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, referenced the attorney general’s opinion and said national social studies curriculum has “adopted the 1619 Project.” Documents from the U.S. Department of Education explain "while there is no national curriculum in the U.S., states, school districts and national associations do require or recommend that certain standards be used to guide school instruction."

“How much impact that will have on us, with our new curriculum, I don't know, but we need to resist,” Hamman said. “And there are so many of those kinds of bombardments that are coming from other places, national organizations and individuals within the state, but I think we need to be very conscious of that, and communicate among ourselves in the Board of Education about how we're resisting some of this that would be very destructive of the innovations that we're making right here.”

In April of this year, the U.S. Department of Education in a document of proposed grant priorities for American history and civics education suggested supporting “teaching and learning that reflects the breadth and depth of our nation's diverse history and the vital role of diversity in our nation's democracy.”

The document cited “growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country's history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society” and pointed to the 1619 Project as an example of that, as well as resources in the the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History.

While the federal Department of Education cited the 1619 Project, it did not require its use. Republican lawmakers at state and federal levels around the country have brought efforts to ban the use of the 1619 Project in schools or cut funding for schools that teach it.

After Hamman spoke, Arntzen said “the external forces that board member Hammond is talking about, it's very relevant and very real.”

In an email Thursday, the executive director said the BPE chair said "it is our position that Board members can make statements during board meetings as individual opinion. Only action items are statements of the full Board of Public Education."

In Montana, school boards make decisions around curriculum and the Board of Public Education has the authority to set content standards.

Arntzen also said it is “incumbent upon all of us to resist” the federal government’s “intrusion,” and added she didn't want her comments to be construed as “political.”

The Office of Public Instruction is working with the Attorney General’s office on “multiple avenues,” Arntzen said, adding “I firmly believe that Montana is protected, but we can always do better.”

Earlier in the meeting, Arntzen referenced a school law conference to be scheduled for November. The conference would be for school leaders, teachers and “more importantly, for parents and businesses to understand what is happening in our public school system as we embrace innovation, but also are being very lawful,” Arntzen said.

She continued: “Understanding that federal government may have overreach within our local control model and wanting to make sure ... that discrimination is not part of Montana, and we will not stand for it in our K-12 system.”

After the Attorney General's opinion was published, a group of people including educators and Democratic members of the state's American Indian Caucus, worried it would have a chilling effect on the state's constitutionally required Indian Education for All (IEFA) program, something Knudsen and Arntzen disputed.

Earlier Thursday, the Montana Historical Society, which operates programs that help Montana educators teach history, sent an email to educators addressing Knudsen's opinion.

The email said it's OK "to teach about racism, discrimination and other topics so long as no adverse or discriminatory actions are taken against any students as a part of the lesson, curricula or learning activity."

"Continue to teach history and IEFA. Continue to encourage respectful exchanges of ideas. Continue to treat all students fairly and with respect," the email read.

OPI and the Board of Public Education are also facing a lawsuit filed in July claiming the state agencies responsible for implementing the Indian Education for All program have failed to ensure comprehensive compliance statewide.

The lawsuit claims OPI does not require uniform reporting by school districts about what they're teaching to meet the Indian Education for All requirements or monitor how districts use funding appropriated by the Legislature for programs. It also claims OPI and the Board of Public Education don't monitor if Indian education is even being taught.

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