Florida now targets social studies

The nitty-gritty process of reviewing and approving school textbooks has typically been an administrative affair, drawing the attention of education specialists, publishing executives, and state bureaucrats.

But in Florida, textbooks have become hot politics, part of Governor Ron DeSantis’ campaign against what he describes as “woke indoctrination’’ in public schools, particularly when it comes to race and gender. Last year, his administration made a splash when it rejected dozens of math textbooks, citing “prohibited topics.’’

Now, the state is reviewing curriculum in what is perhaps the most contentious subject in education: social studies.

In the past few months, as part of the review process, a small army of state experts, teachers, parents, and political activists have combed thousands of pages of text — not only evaluating academic content, but also flagging anything that could hint, for instance, at critical race theory.

A prominent conservative education group, whose members volunteered to review textbooks, objected to a slew of them, accusing publishers of “promoting their bias.’’ At least two publishers declined to participate altogether.

And in a sign of how fraught the political landscape has become, one publisher created multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or eliminating references to race — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida.

“Normally, a state adoption is a pretty boring process that a few of us care about, but there are a lot of people watching this because the stakes are so high,’’ said Jeff Livingston, a former publishing executive who is now an education consultant.

It is unclear which social studies textbooks will be approved in Florida, or how the chosen materials might address issues of race in history. The state is expected to announce its textbook decisions in the coming weeks.

The Florida Department of Education, which mandates the teaching of Black history, emphasized that the requirements were recently expanded, including to ensure students understood “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms.’’

But DeSantis, a top Republican 2024 presidential prospect, also signed a law last year known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits instruction that would compel students to feel responsibility, guilt, or anguish for what other members of their race did in the past, among other limits.

The state’s guidelines for evaluating textbooks targets “critical race theory,’’ a graduate-level academic theory that rarely appears in younger grades but has become a catchall to some conservatives; and “social emotional learning,’’ an approach that tries to help students develop positive mind-sets.

The Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group, has urged the state to reject 28 of the 38 textbooks that its volunteers reviewed, including more than a dozen by McGraw Hill, a major national publisher.

The alliance, whose cofounders served on DeSantis’s education advisory team during his transition to governor, has helped lead a sweeping effort to remove school library books deemed as inappropriate, including many with LGBTQ characters. It trained dozens of volunteers to review social studies textbooks.

Image Credits: DSK