JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A new rule in Florida that will place tougher guidelines on how teachers deliver U.S. history lessons was approved Thursday, which public officials have touted 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 . The monthly meeting lasted four hours and featured a contentious debate with about 30 public speakers that was derailed when people began chanting “allow teachers to teach the truth.”
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.”
More:What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans oppose teaching it in schools?
Supporters of the concept say it’s more about teaching through a lens of systemic racism and equity.
His push mirrors other conservative leaders across the country. 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.
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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.
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.”
Pierce said the district follows all required statutes and rules regarding standards and curriculum, noting that critical race theory as its own topic is not included in the state curriculum.
Elizabeth Albert, president of the Volusia County teachers union, also noted that critical race theory is 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.
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.”
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.
“Teaching the facts will bring the country together,” said Jacksonville-based activist Wells Todd, “not divide the country.”
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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.
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 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. For Koch, who has spoken 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.”
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.”
Contributing: Sommer Brugal, Andrew Marra and Cassidy Alexander, USA TODAY Network-Florida education reporters. Reach Emily Bloch on Twitter at @emdrums.