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Florida board votes to ban critical race theory from state classrooms

Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida adopted a new rule Thursday to prevent public schools from teaching critical race theory, a push led by Gov. Ron DeSantis as a way to prevent history that would “denigrate the Founding Fathers” from being taught in state classrooms.

DeSantis, following a national conservative playbook, said he wanted to prevent instructors from “teaching kids to hate their country.”

But critics of the rule, and many of the speakers at the Jacksonville meeting, said DeSantis and his GOP backers are trying to prevent schools from addressing racism and its effect on America and from teaching history that doesn’t focus only on white people.

“It’s an effort to whitewash, cover up and candy-coat history,” said Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville. “Allow teachers to speak the truth.”

The governor, speaking via a video connection, told the State Board of Education that he does not want to stop children from learning about slavery or the civil rights movement, only to make sure they don’t hear “narratives that are not grounded in facts.” He wants to prevent, he has said, students from learning a “false history,” where they “look back and denigrate the Founding Fathers, denigrate the American Revolution.”

In his short address, he offered no instances where Florida teachers had offered inaccurate history lessons but cited problems in schools in Arizona and New York.

The board voted on the rule after hearing from the governor and more than 30 speakers. Florida is among more than a dozen Republican-led states seeking this year to ban critical race theory from its schools.

Critical race theory, initially a legal framework that examined how racism impacted the country’s institutions, is not a topic taught in Florida’s public schools, nor was it mentioned explicitly in the initial proposed rule, though DeSantis said it would block its teaching.

Critics of the theory often use the term as a broad catchall for what they view as troubling diversity and anti-racism programs in schools, efforts to make the books children read in class reflect the backgrounds of a diverse group of students and historical lessons they see as divisive and anti-American.

Board member Tom Grady proposed amending the rule to add the phrase critical race theory, saying teachers cannot “distort” history nor rely on materials like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which sought to “reframe” American history by putting slavery “at the very center of our national narrative.” The project faced fierce criticism from former President Donald Trump and some historians.

The amended version of the rule was adopted unanimously.

Jacob Oliva, the chancellor for K-12 education at the Florida Department of Education, said the rule would make sure teachers follow state academic standards and do not “go rogue” in their classrooms.

But critics said it was an effort to keep students from learning an unvarnished version of American history.

“We will not allow you to call our history fake news because you can’t handle the truth,” a man from Osceola County told the board. “Black history is American history.”

DeSantis’ push for the new rule, in the view of critics, is a backlash, in part, against the protests for racial equality that roiled the country after the death of George Floyd last year and some school districts’ efforts to take a critical look at their own policies.

“Teaching the facts will bring the country together, not divide the country,” said Wells Todd of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, noting that while DeSantis mentioned slavery and civil rights in his address he did not acknowledge reconstruction, lynching and segregation, all of which should be taught.

“Students deserve the best education we can provide, and that means giving them a true picture of their world and our shared history as Americans. Hiding facts doesn’t change them,” said Andrew Spar, president of Florida’s teachers’ union, in a statement, issued Tuesday.

 

The Florida Education Association called the proposed rule insulting to teachers as well, because it says they cannot “indoctrinate” students, which Spar and others said doesn’t happen.

But supporters of the new rule said critical race theory was divisive and harmful.

“We all know it’s a Marxist tactic to divide our country by class and by race,” Bennett Brown, of the Florida Family Policy Council, told the board.

Quisha King of Moms for Liberty in Jacksonville called it an effort to make white children feel they are oppressors and everyone else that they are victims.

“Telling my child that they are in a permanent oppressed status is racist,” King said.

“Don’t let schools teach kids to be ashamed for their race,” reads the website of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group that has urged DeSantis to root out critical race theory and “its many tentacles” from the state’s schools.

The seven state board members who voted on the Florida rule were appointed by DeSantis or by former Gov. Rick Scott, a fellow Republican now serving as one of Florida’s U.S. senators, so their approval was not surprising.

On May 27, Scott introduced a Senate resolution that criticizes critical race theory and says “efforts to indoctrinate” the subject into schools “are designed to eventually transform the United States by stigmatizing its economic system and creating a hatred of all its institutions.”

The new Florida rule says teachers may not ”share their personal views or attempt to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view that is inconsistent” with state standards.

It also says that, “Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country."

Gregory Sampson, a high school math teacher in Jacksonville, thinks DeSantis, considered a potential presidential candidate for the 2024 election, is using critical race theory to score political points with Trump’s base.

“I don’t think the governor and his fellow Republicans really understand what critical race theory does,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a criticism. It’s a critique, a way of looking at how history has unfolded.”

And it means recognizing racism. “It’s there. You can’t deny it,” said Sampson, who writes about education on his Grumpy Old Teacher blog. But he thinks DeSantis wants to return to a time when race wasn’t mentioned.

“That’s how it was in the old days, the days of segregation, Jim Crow, and unchallenged White Supremacy,” he wrote in a recent blog post.

DeSantis also has pushed for a rewrite of the state’s civics standards, the benchmarks for what students learn in social studies classes kindergarten through 12th grade. That effort has also proved controversial as he also wants those lessons to focus on “the success of the United States.”

The state board could vote on the new civic benchmarks on July 14.

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