Florida Board of Education approves new academic standards opposing Critical Race Theory

By Emily Bloch, Florida Times-Union, June 11, 2021

A new rule in Florida that will place tougher guidelines on how teachers deliver U.S. history lessons was approved Thursday. Public officials have touted the law as a way to get critical race theory — a movement that examines the intersections of race, law and equity — out of the classroom.

The Florida Board of Education met Thursday in Jacksonville to discuss the topic that’s been strong-arming education news and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ talking points for weeks now — critical race theory.

The monthly meeting, which lasted four hours, was held at the Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Advanced Technology Center campus downtown. It was a contentious debate, with about 30 public speakers and an “ALLOW TEACHERS TO TEACH THE TRUTH” chant derailing protocol and forcing a recess.

Last month, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told an audience at a speaking engagement that the rule would help better “police” Florida teachers. He added that the rule would prevent teachers from “indoctrinating” their students with a liberal agenda.

Corcoran referenced Duval County teacher Amy Donofrio — who the Southern Poverty Law Center is representing in a high-profile lawsuit — and how she displayed a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom at Robert E. Lee High School. On Thursday, Corcoran and others met just 3 miles away from that campus.

The vote also had a particular resonance in Palm Beach County, where a divided school board last month removed a reference to “white advantage” from an equity statement after some parents called it an attempt to inject Critical Race Theory into school district policy.

Justin Katz, president of Palm Beach County’s teachers’ union, said Thursday’s vote “treads dangerously close to restricting the instruction of objective facts.”

“I do fear that the politicization of Critical Race Theory is being used to snuff out any and all conversations about equity, race, and racism in our schools,” said Katz, a former high school history teacher. “Educating our students with objective historical facts is literally the purpose of the existing state standards across a variety of content areas.

Some educators pointed out that the vote will have little practical impact on the classroom. In a statement, Palm Beach County’s school district said that what and how it teaches would not be affected.

“The School District of Palm Beach County has taught, and will continue to teach, the standards as adopted by the Florida Department of Education.

In Duval County, a spokesman said the new rule won’t impact instruction within the school district.

“Duval County Public Schools continues to build on a strong tradition of teaching American history,” Tracy Pierce with Duval County Public Schools said. “We also offer African American history both as an independent course elective at the high school level and as an important topic integrated through other curriculum including social studies, English language arts, and courses across grade levels.”

Duval County was recently recertified as an “Exemplary School District” by the Florida Commissioner of Education’s African American History Task Force for adhering to the state’s required instruction of the history and contributions of African Americans.

Pierce said the district follows all required statutes and rules regarding standards and curriculum.

“Critical Race Theory, as an independent topic, is not included in state standards or state approved curriculum,” he said. “The district remains committed to intellectual integrity and strengthening critical thinking skills of all students through the approved curriculum and its applications.”

Critical race theory isn’t included in the state’s academic standards or in the proposed changes to those standards, President of the Volusia County teachers union Elizabeth Albert pointed — which means it’s not a required part of instruction and students aren’t tested on it in state exams.

“My question would be, why is he making such a stand to ban something, claiming that teachers are indoctrinating students, when this isn’t even in the schools?” she said. “He’s creating an issue where an issue doesn’t exist.” 

Still, Albert added that students deserve to know what’s going on in the U.S. and around the world, and telling partial truths equates to a falsehood.

Without explicitly mentioning critical race theory, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar similarly decried politicians who “create boogeymen and use Florida’s public schools as political football.”

“We must come together to demand our leaders focus on the real needs of Florida’s schools,” Spar tweeted Thursday. “That starts by ending the policies that drive teachers and other educators out of the profession and taking the time to listen to professional educators about the policy changes necessary to recruit and retain staff.”

The new guidelines seek to change how teachers approach U.S. history, civics and government lessons with an added emphasis on patriotism and the U.S. Constitution. It’s a selling point DeSantis has used since first running for governor in 2018 and is now wheeling out again ahead of his re-election campaign.

DeSantis has notably called critical race theory the practice of “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” Supporters of the concept say it’s more about teaching through a lens of systemic racism and equity. In speeches, DeSantis has trumpeted his efforts to “ban” it from state schools, despite it not currently being a part of any Florida curriculum or standards.

He made similar remarks Thursday morning, when he addressed the Board of Education virtually.

“We have to do history that is factual,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s important that when we’re doing things like history that it’s grounded in actual fact over narrative … We need to be educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them.”

His push mirrors other conservative leaders across the country.

As noted by USA TODAY, about a dozen states — including Louisiana, Iowa, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Oklahoma — have introduced bills that would prevent teachers from teaching “divisive,” “racist,” or “sexist” concepts.

Duval County School Board Member and recently announced Republican District 6 Florida Senate candidate Lori Hershey told WJCT Wednesday that she agrees with  DeSantis and wants to prevent critical race theory from being discussed in schools.

“We’re at a time in our nation that I really think we need to stay away from theories that are divisive in the classroom, and particularly theories that tend to lean more towards a political perspective, and lean towards indoctrination of students in a specific political mindset,” she said.

The guidelines considered by the Board of Education say teachers “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence” and prohibit teachers from sharing their personal views.

“The governor and the commissioner have been clear that teachers need to be engaging students in how to think — not what to think,” Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education told the Tampa Bay Times. “Standards drive instruction, and anything taught in the classroom must align with those standards.”

Some want systemic racism discussions out of classrooms, others say it’s whitewashing history 

Teachers across Florida have expressed concerns with the new teaching standards, adding that discussing personal opinions should be welcomed, so long as students are provided the tools to make their own decisions.

Speakers on both sides of the fence spoke for over an hour.

“Teaching the facts will bring the country together,” said Jacksonville-based activist Wells Todd, “not divide the country.”

The new restrictions come on the heels of heightened racial tensions following the killing of George Floyd.

David Hoppey, the director of the University of North Florida’s education program, said it would be nearly impossible for teachers to ignore what’s going on in society with their students.

“You cannot have civics without critical analysis and discussion about historical and current events,” he said, adding that critical race theory can be used to help a class better understand topics like dress code enforcement, voter suppression and more.

Board members at the meeting spoke only in favor of the new rule, including Tom Grady who even offered to double down on it.

Grady offered an approved amendment that makes the rule even more specific, specifically naming Holocaust denialism, The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, which Grady called “fiction masquerading as fact.”

Ahead of the vote, Florida education officials toured the state for a series of community meetings for input on the state’s academic standards. Those meetings — some better attended than others — quickly became battlefields for pro- and anti- critical race theory voices.

In St. Johns County on Tuesday, some residents discussed their opposition to critical race theory, citing not wanting discussions about systemic racism in the classroom, News4Jax reported. Others in Miami raised concerns about the new rule potentially whitewashing history lessons and limiting classroom discussions — concerns educators have also brought up. Another meeting took place on Wednesday in Baker County.

Keeley Koch wasn’t surprised by Thursday’s vote, saying the board’s move “speaks volumes to the fear people, especially white people, in our state have.”

In Indian River County, where her son recently graduated high school, there’s been a growing debate among parents and community members regarding the topic. For the past month or so at School Board meetings, parents on both sides of the conversation have emotionally voiced their opinions about the implications of discussing race and racism in the classrooms.

For Koch, who has spoken out in favor of implementing the ideas of critical race theory, however, the rhetoric used by those opposing the theory only “propagates white supremacy by ignoring the historical facts this country was founded on.”

“We have a significant and very volatile conservative population in this state who will do whatever it takes to ensure their way of life is intact, even if that means not educating its students about the facts,” she said. “Everything in this country is wired to ensure white supremacy stays intact, and Florida is just a beacon of that.

Others, including Kevin Browning, Indian River schools Equity Committee chairperson, and David Freeland, president of the St. Lucie County teachers’ union, Thursday’s move was purely political.

“There are certain governors and state legislatures around the country that are trying to rile up their base,” Browning said. “Because until all of this hullaballoo started, I don’t think many people even knew what critical race theory even was. It’s not being taught in schools.”

Freeland echoed Browning, saying lawmakers moved forward with the rule to score points with a certain group of constituents around the state.

“I find it ironic that [lawmakers] are concerned about teachers indoctrinating students are then solving that problem by white-washing historical events,” Freeland said.

The Anti-Defamation League has also voiced concerns with the new teaching standards. 

“The rule requires that public schools provide factual and objective instruction on state-mandated subjects including, African American history, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement. Yet, it broadly prohibits any instruction about racism being ‘embedded in American society and its legal systems,” said Yael Hershfield, the Florida Interim Regional Director.

Hershfield said it’s impossible to teach about slavery or Jim Crow without examining laws that were put into place to instill segregation.

She added that from a Jewish perspective, the section about Holocaust education raises concerns.

Currently, the rule says the factual history of the Holocaust should be taught in a way that “leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity.”

Hershfield said the rule could limit how the Holocaust is taught.  

“For example, it could very well prohibit teaching why the Nazis used Jim Crow statutes as a model for their infamous Nuremberg Race Laws,” she said. “A core tenet of teaching history is examining why events occurred for the purpose of developing critical thinking skills that can help ensure historical wrongs are not repeated in the present day or the future. The rule appears to contradict that essential value, which is a disservice to our children and society as a whole.”

On Thursday, members of the grassroots organization, The Northside Coalition, rallied at Florida State College at Jacksonville in opposition of the new rule and eventually forced a recess when they started a chant during the public comment portion.

“It’s an effort to whitewash, coverup and candy coat history,” the group’s president Ben Frazier said. “It is, in fact, a Republican political propaganda campaign.”

USA Today Network-Florida education reporters Sommer Brugal, Andrew Marra and Cassidy Alexander contributed to this report. 

Emily Bloch is an education reporter for The Florida Times-Union. Follow her on Twitter or email her.