PHOENIX -- The Arizona Department of Education won’t act on a request from a Republican state lawmaker to take funding away from a Phoenix school district that serves low-income students because it adopted curriculum from “The 1619 Project,” which examines the legacy slavery in the U.S.
In a Feb. 25 letter to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, asked the education department to withhold 10% of state funding from Balsz Elementary School District because its 1619 Project curriculum violates a state law that prohibits courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
That law is part of the so-called ethnic studies ban, a state law created in 2010 to punish a Tucson school district for its popular Mexican-American Studies program that Republican lawmakers said villainized white people. In 2017, a federal judge said that law was motivated by racism.
The 1619 Project, launched in 2019 by The New York Times Magazine to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to what later became the U.S., frames the enslavement of Africans and their descendents as a foundational event in the country’s history.
Last year, Balsz became the first school district in the state to pilot a curriculum sourced from The 1619 Project.
The project’s creator, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for “a sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”
In his letter to Hoffman, Fillmore said that essay “is based on a divisive and disputed version of alt-history that encourages an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.”
Hoffman declined Fillmore’s request.
In a March 1 letter responding to Fillmore, Hoffman said a federal court order from 2017 prevents ADE from acting on the law the Republican legislator cited.
“A federal court found that the law was enacted with discriminatory intent and found it unconstitutional,” Hoffman said.
Fillmore represents Legislative District 16, which includes the Pinal County communities of Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and San Tan Valley.
Last week in a Black History Month newsletter, ADE’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which Hoffman established shortly after taking office in 2019, recommended The 1619 Project’s podcast series as a resource for educators to “continue centering Black History throughout the year.”
In October, the Balsz School District Governing Board voted unanimously to adopt a pilot 1619 Project curriculum, in which teachers would be part of a training program taught by Black educators to then implement content in their lesson plans.
Areleen Kennedy, the district superintendent, said in a letter last year that the curriculum aligns with the district’s goal of inclusion of its diverse student population. The district’s students are 65% Latino, 21% Black, 6% Native American and 6% white.
“While its focus is on the history and impact of African Americans in our country, it is an example of how each culture can examine its history in the context of education,” Kennedy wrote. “It is an exercise that we believe will be illuminating for students from all cultures, and as opportunities present themselves, we will be looking for ways for other cultures at Balsz to benefit from the same experience.”
In December, Fillmore and Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, sent a letter to Balsz condemning the decision.
Fillmore has been vocally critical of initiatives that address racism in America.
In Feb. 18 committee debate on a proposal to create a day of racial healing in Arizona, Fillmore said he doesn’t believe Black and other people of color face any discrimination that white people also don’t experience. He said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 solved the racial divide, referred to Black people with the archaic term “colored,” and said efforts to address racism and its impacts are too divisive.
“I don’t see the racial disparity problems,” he said. Fillmore added that former President Barack Obama and The 1619 Project are responsible for dividing a country on racial lines.
“I believe our country had actually really moved forward by leaps and bounds up until a couple of presidents ago, when the division became more rapid… I mean, our country has been trying to do everything we can,” Fillmore said. “I’m seeing Project 1619 being taught in our schools, which I think is divisive and it’s detrimental to having good relationships amongst little kids trying to learn.”
Channel Powe, the former board president who led the governing board when the pilot program was approved, told the Arizona Mirror that Fillmore’s insistence on targeting Balsz shows he is part of a group of lawmakers who “obviously don’t know the full extent of American history.”
“There are more African Americans in prison than there were slaves. We have a problem,” Powe said. “We continuously turn back and revert to our old ways of suppressing truthful information and knowledge that’s a part of American history. We want our students to be able to see themselves in the curriculum, we want our students to be able to understand the atrocities that took place, and why, and how that looks today.
“If we want to create a better society of young people and problem-solvers and future leaders, they do have to understand and know America’s truth and what it was built on,” she said.
Powe said Balsz’s decision to implement curriculum based on The 1619 Project aligns with the vision the governing board had structured for the district.
“We have already crafted our strategic plan and the board for years has been advocating for a diverse curriculum, so The 1619 Project completely aligned with the direction that Balsz was wanting to go,” she said.
Powe pointed to a resolution that Balz passed in June during a local and national movement calling for accountability for the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. It expressed the governing boards commitment to Black students and Black lives.
In it, the board acknowledged racial disparities in the educational system.
“We as a Board are therefore committed to continuing to address systemic racism towards Black students and will continue to prioritize and target their academic achievements,” the resolution reads.
Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.