A bill that sought to ban the teaching of a curriculum based on a New York Times project on slavery failed in a legislative committee on Tuesday.
House Bill 1231, by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would prohibit the use of public school funds to teach The 1619 Project curriculum in kindergarten-through-12 schools, a set of materials based on an initiative from the New York Times Magazine that began in 2019. The project is a set of essays and reporting based on the thesis that the United States' foundational date is the year the first enslaved Africans were transported to the colonies.
The bill had opposition from Arkansas residents and lawmakers who felt it aimed to erase a painful part of the nation's history, as well as from education groups including the state Department of Education and the Arkansas State Teachers Association, who said deciding what curriculum materials should be used is best left to specialists and local school boards.
"We are a great nation built upon the backs of free labor called slavery, so this needs to be taught, and the way I see it, my interpretation is that our history is not being taught in public schools, it's being mentioned," Kymara Seals, policy director for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said.
Though officials weren't aware of any school in Arkansas using the curriculum, Lowery and those who supported the bill pointed to factual inaccuracies that some historians have cited in the project, and said the project is one-sided and divisive.
"If students read this and they have this in the curriculum, I don't know whether it'd be safe for a certain political group to walk the street, and that's because of what's in it and what's not in it," Iverson Jackson, chairman of the state Republican Party's African American Coalition, said. "It came across to me more as propaganda."
Members of the House Education Committee had concerns about the bill's enforcement mechanism and said it encroached on local control.
"I'm concerned when we as a Legislature begin to list things that our schools cannot teach and punish them for doing so," Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, said.
Fite added that parents and school boards are the appropriate people to come in and make corrections when they have a concern about curriculum materials.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the state Department of Education opposes the bill because the department already has a process for determining curriculum standards and addressing materials that don't meet them, and that effort is led by educators. He said the department does not have a stance on the 1619 Project curriculum, because the agency does not endorse curriculum materials unless specifically directed to do so by statute.
He added that enforcement would be difficult, because part of school funding is awarded on a per-student basis, and it is difficult to determine how much of that is used for professional development.
The legislation failed in a voice vote after about two hours of questions, testimony and debate.
Lowery said told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he is not bringing HB1231 up again. The lawmaker is also the sponsor of HB1218, which would allow for state funding to be restricted from going to schools with certain courses, events or activities that separate or promote social justice for particular groups of students.
Through a spokeswoman on Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had concerns about both bills.
Lowery said in a text message Tuesday that he is planning to file a student-protection bill to allow parental examination of curriculum and an opt-in preference to parents, which likely will lead to him pulling down HB1218.