Bill to Ban 1619 Project Curriculum Fails in Committee

House Representatives and community members discussed the legislation for more than two hours.

Rep. Reginald Murdock
Rep. Reginald Murdock speaks against HB1231 during a House Committee on Education meeting Feb. 9, 2021.

Rep. Mark Lowery, a Republican from Maumelle, presented House Bill 1231 to the House Committee on Education yesterday. The goal of the legislation is to prohibit the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project curriculum and reduce funding for those that do. Rep. Lowery recently amended the bill so that it would no longer apply to higher education institutions. The legislation, which aimed to create the Saving American History Act of 2021, failed on a voice vote. 

The 1619 Project, which began with a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, challenges Americans to “reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil” as the nation’s foundational date, according to the Pulitzer Center, which hosts the curriculum on its website. 

Rep. Lowery said the content of the project reads well and could be taught as literature, but it shouldn’t be taught as history because it contains historical inaccuracies. Opponents of HB1231, as well as the creator of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, have described the project as a work of journalism and not a history.

During his presentation, Rep. Lowery noted that the intent of the bill is not to ban the teaching of Black history. 

“I believe that we would be committing educational malpractice if we did not teach Black history, if we did not talk about the contributions of African Americans in the fabric of America,” Rep. Lowery said.

While there is a place for sharing different perspectives, Lowery said the 1619 Project is not the perspective that’s needed in Arkansas classrooms because it’s “a thesis in search of evidence.”

“No matter how flowery the language is and no matter how pure the heart motive is, even of the writers, of wanting to make sure that we don’t ignore the contributions of African Americans in the forming of this nation, of this more perfect union, we cannot do that by totally throwing away everything that we’ve come to know as the foundation of America,” Lowery said. 

A number of people who spoke against the bill, including Rep. Reginald Murdock, a Democrat from Marianna, voiced concern that the legislation would remove the right of local districts to shape their own curriculum.

“What you’re doing is censuring and you’re taking away the ability of those that have been trained to stand before our students, stand before America and teach, and provide trained guidance and curriculum development and leadership,” Rep. Murdock said. 

The Arkansas Department of Education has established a process for developing and approving academic standards and courses, and state law places the responsibility of adopting curriculum with the local school board, Education Secretary Johnny Key said. 

“There have been times that we have deviated in the state from this, but this is still the position of the department that this is something that’s, as far as adoption of curriculum, best left to the local elected boards and the administrators and educators,” Key said.  

The role of the Department of Education, he said, is to be made aware if curriculum is out of alignment with current standards and look into it. At present, Key said he does not know of any Arkansas schools using the 1619 Project curriculum. The bill calls for reducing funds to schools who do teach the curriculum, but Sec. Key said there are some technical issues that would make that difficult to implement.

HB1231 failed on a voice vote. Rep. Lowery filed another education bill last month that would prohibit courses and activities that isolate students based on race, gender, political affiliation or social class. During yesterday’s committee meeting, Lowery said he’s considering pulling HB1218 and creating something along the lines of a student protection act, which would allow parents to review curriculum and decide if they wanted their student to participate. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.