PolitiFact’s Failed Attack on DeSantis over Civics Education

Published July 11, 2022

National Review

Late last Friday, PolitiFact issued a “fact check” claiming that Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s recent swipe against the Civics Secures Democracy Act (CSDA) was “false.” Actually, DeSantis’s criticism of CSDA is on the mark. It’s PolitiFact’s reporting that’s fallacious. PolitiFact’s failed attack on DeSantis can fairly be called an opinion piece in disguise. But it’s also something more — and worse — than that. Yacob Reyes of PolitiFact thoroughly misrepresents DeSantis, merely refuting a straw man of his own making. Let’s have a look, then, at the media’s latest bogus hit job on DeSantis.

At a June 30 event on civics education, DeSantis contrasted Florida’s approach to that subject with CSDA, which he said, “would allow the Biden administration to buy off states with $6 billion if they sacrifice American history for critical race theory and Biden’s other political whims of the day.” PolitiFact rates this statement “false,” because “DeSantis’s claim ignores a provision in the Civics Secures Democracy Act that prevents the education secretary from imposing curricula, such as critical race theory, on states.”

The first problem with PolitiFact’s argument is that it misstates the meaning of the relevant language of the bill. That language doesn’t “prevent” the education secretary from imposing curricula; rather, it merely states that the bill shall not be interpreted to authorize such action (a much weaker proviso). Although it’s an issue for another day, plenty of folks argue that education secretaries have been disregarding similarly weak constraints for decades.

But even if PolitiFact had correctly described the bill, the argument would be a non sequitur. DeSantis never claimed that Biden’s education secretary would formally “impose” curricula on the states. On the contrary, DeSantis said that CSDA would allow Biden to “buy off” states with grant money “if” they teach CRT.

The distinction is crucial. DeSantis isn’t talking about formal curricular coercion via federal law or executive order. He’s talking about what amounts to a massive federal bribe via grants that incentivize CRT. The federal government typically uses its discretion in the awarding of grants to evade legal barriers against formally coercing states and localities. Usually, the feds can get states to do what they want just by dangling fat grants with conditions attached. Formally speaking, states apply for those grants “voluntarily.” In practice, however, with states perpetually short of cash, an offer of federal grants with conditions attached turns out to be an offer few states can refuse.

I made this point last month in a piece about CSDA that PolitiFact references yet effectively ignores. Here’s what I said: “It doesn’t matter that federal law and the bill itself disclaim the authority to formally impose a curriculum on the states. The strings that Biden’s bureaucrats will attach to these massive federal grants will suffice to lure states into adopting CRT.”

DeSantis is making the latter point. And he is under no obligation to mention the provision of the bill that disclaims any authorization of formal curricular coercion, precisely because that provision in no way forbids or prevents what DeSantis rightly calls a federal “buy off.” Incentives attached to competitive grants give the feds de facto control over states, even without formal coercion.

PolitiFact gets around the flaw in its argument by blatantly misrepresenting what DeSantis actually said. At the head of its article, PolitiFact correctly cites DeSantis’s claim that CSDA would allow the Biden administration to “buy off” states “if” they adopt CRT. Later on, however, PolitiFact pretends that DeSantis said the federal government was out to “mandate” or “compel” states into adopting CRT. No, DeSantis said the feds were going to use grants to effectively bribe states into adopting CRT.

To create a supposedly false DeSantis claim, at the end of its piece PolitiFact stops quoting DeSantis partway through his actual statement. PolitiFact then adds the word “compel,” which DeSantis never used. DeSantis actually said that CSDA “would allow the Biden administration to buy off states with $6 billion if they sacrifice American history for critical race theory . . .” (my emphasis). Dropping the quotation marks and substituting its own inaccurate paraphrase partway through, PolitiFact converts DeSantis’s actual statement to the following: “DeSantis said the Civics Secures Democracy Act ‘would allow the Biden administration to buy off states with $6 billion’ and compel them to adopt critical race theory” (my emphasis). PolitiFact’s “false” rating makes no sense if DeSantis is merely claiming that the feds want to “buy off” states with grants that they are technically free to forgo. Again, language saying essentially, “we don’t authorize federally compelled curricula” has nothing to do with DeSantis’s actual claim. PolitiFact has to outright misrepresent what DeSantis said in order to rule his statement false. They portray him as talking about formal federal compulsion when in fact he does no such thing.

PolitiFact also reports that it approached the governor’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, asking for proof that Biden will use CSDA to impose CRT on the states. In reply, Pushaw cited an article of mine itemizing the administration’s record of support for CRT. PolitiFact dismisses that article for failing to “provide credible evidence” that Biden will use CSDA to support CRT. Yet PolitiFact’s own failure to address the most powerful piece of evidence I offer is revealing.

In April of last year Biden’s Department of Education issued the text of a proposed rule on priority criteria for federal grants in American history and civics. That text cites prominent CRT theorist Ibram X. Kendi, as well as the 1619 Project, as examples of the sort of approach to be favored by Biden in the awarding of federal history and civics grants. That rule is nothing if not “credible evidence” that the Biden administration will direct history and civics grants to CRT-style plans and projects. PolitiFact makes much of the fact that CSDA never explicitly mentions critical race theory. Yet the point is that the bill leaves the administration enough discretion to attach its own priority criteria. And we’ve now seen powerful evidence that, when it comes to history and civics grants, the administration means to prioritize CRT.

That rule prioritizing pro-CRT history and civics grants sparked a huge outcry. The administration was flooded with negative public comments, pundits attacked, and 38 Republican senators signed a letter of protest against the rule. In response, Biden issued a slightly revised rule text. This one omitted direct reference to Kendi and the 1619 Project, while nonetheless preserving the upshot of the original rule. The walk-back changed nothing of importance. After all, the message had already gone out to potential grant applicants across the country. You’d have to be a fool not to realize at this point that Biden’s Education Department will look favorably on pro-CRT grants, not only because the initial text of the rule spilled the beans, but because of a host of other pro-CRT moves from this administration.

Yet it’s telling that PolitiFact didn’t even mention the infamous dustup over Biden’s pro-CRT rule for history and civics grants. Why didn’t PolitiFact at least cite the walk-back of the more openly pro-CRT text as evidence that the administration had soured on CRT? Maybe it’s because that walk-back was such an obviously insincere bit of damage control. Besides, just bringing up Biden’s initial pro-CRT rule would show that credible evidence for the administration’s pro-CRT civics plans does in fact exist.

PolitiFact’s failure to tell the story of Biden’s pro-CRT rule for history and civics grants is an irresponsible and discrediting omission. PolitiFact falsely claims that DeSantis’s case against CSDA is disproven by his failure to mention what is in fact an irrelevant proviso in CSDA disclaiming an authorization of formal curricular coercion. In reality, its PolitiFact’s own case against DeSantis that is falsified by a damning omission. Any fair representation or assessment of DeSantis’s claim — that Biden means to “buy off” states by attaching strings to civics grants — requires discussion of the huge public dustup over Biden’s pro-CRT civics rule. PolitiFact’s failure to even address that issue discredits its case, and suggests bad faith to boot.

Meanwhile, Biden’s pro-CRT actions continue. On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order pressing pro-CRT actions into every corner of his administration. Then came support for CRT from his Education Department, not to mention outrageous attacks on parents fighting CRT at local school-board meetings. Just in the past few days we’ve learned of a grant from HHS to NYU to study “why children favor whiteness and maleness.” On top of that, some anti-CRT groups have announced a lawsuit against the Biden’s Department of Education. The complaining groups claim that the Department of Education has stacked its newly created “parents council” with pro-BLM and pro-CRT groups, in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). FACA requires that such committees have a membership that is “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.” The suit alleges that the opposite is the case. It would appear that Biden’s pro-CRT bias continues to play out in real time. Why should we expect his administration of the Civics Secures Democracy Act to break from that pattern?

In short, DeSantis is right. The Civics Secures Democracy Act gives Biden a gigantic pot of money with which he can “buy off” states in exchange for their support of CRT. It isn’t about formal federal “coercion.” It’s about federal bribery — although in practice they amount to about the same thing.

The deeper falsehood is embodied in federal “rules of construction” like the one in CSDA, which says, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the Secretary of Education to prescribe a civics or history curriculum.” (In a similar manner, HUD has no power to formally dictate local zoning, yet it manipulates federal grants to get around that legality in practice.) Washington politicians regularly tout such provisions to prove that they aren’t overreaching their constitutional writ, when in fact that’s exactly what they are doing. There is no constitutional basis for a federal role in education. Yet that function endlessly expands via deceptive workarounds like CSDA. If PolitiFact really wanted to perform a public service, it would expose this deeply deceptive game instead of taking at face value the misleading rules of an ever-expanding federal power grab.

The thing about DeSantis is, he gets it. He’s done more to pull back Common Core, for example, than any other governor I know. DeSantis understands the tricks other governors use to pretend they’ve replaced Common Core when in fact they have not. Best of all, instead of using his knowledge of that deceptive game to further fool the public, DeSantis breaks the mold and does the right thing. His opposition to the Civics Secures Democracy Act is of a piece with his approach to Common Core. From everything I’ve seen in the education world — and I’ve seen a fair amount — DeSantis is the real deal. PolitiFact, in contrast, is locus classicus of the fake fact check. (See here and here for more examples of PolitiFact’s false and biased work.) The arrow of PolitiFact’s famous “Truth-O-Meter” is looking mighty wide of the mark right now. DeSantis, in contrast, is dead-on.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Image: Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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