What should Florida kids learn about U.S. history? A rule is in the works.

“The goal of the teacher is to teach kids how to think, not what to think,” education commissioner Richard Corcoran said.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks about his education philosophy during a May 5 speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks about his education philosophy during a May 5 speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan. [ Hillsdale College / YouTube ]
Published May 19, 2021|Updated May 19, 2021

A new rule proposed by education commissioner Richard Corcoran would require Florida teachers to align their civics lessons to a traditional view of American history.

The move won praise from Corcoran’s fellow Republicans, but was blasted by critics who say it would prevent students from studying critical truths about the nation’s past.

The rule would address a concern raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants to make sure “critical race theory” — an approach to teaching the role of racism in U.S. society — isn’t used in the state’s public schools. Lawmakers did not take up the issue in their spring session, leaving an opening for Corcoran to address it administratively.

The measure, which is headed to the State Board of Education on June 10, states that 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.” The rule also would require teachers not to share their personal views or attempt to indoctrinate students to a point of view that deviates from the state’s newly adopted academic standards.

“All we’re doing is saying you can’t go back and rewrite history,” Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re saying it in a positive way. Teach the facts.”

His proposal drew support from within Republican ranks.

State Rep. Chris Latvala, chairman of the House Education & Employment Committee, said he agreed that the teaching of U.S. history — including the parts that are not the nation’s proudest moments — should be factual. At the same time, the Clearwater Republican said, “there is a way to teach it without indoctrinating kids about how bad white people are.”

Such views outraged state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a teacher who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Jones, a West Park Democrat, is Black.

“No one is teaching a damn thing about how bad white people are,” Jones said. “That is the type of rhetoric that has this country in the direction we are in right now.”

In recent weeks, a Duval County teacher has been removed from her classroom for displaying Black Lives Matter materials. Another dispute over Black Lives Matter prompted a white Hernando County lawmaker to take aim at the local school superintendent.

Jones said it is un-American to stifle discussions about critical race theory and the 1619 Project, another curriculum that reframes U.S. history around the arrival of the first enslaved Africans. Students need to know about the entirety of the nation’s history, not just the portions that conservative leaders choose to include in standards and textbooks, he argued.

“That is American history, teaching people about how we got to where we are today,” Jones said.

Brad Weller, a Pinellas County middle school civics teacher, in the past has raised questions about the direction that Florida’s standards are headed. He’s suggested that some of the ideas tout an American exceptionalism that many groups do not share enthusiasm for, as it does not reflect their experiences.

He viewed the proposed rule as extending that division.

“My first question is, what is the truth?” Weller said.

He noted that when the Declaration of Independence, on which the rule balances, states “All men are created equal,” the writers were not speaking of men and women of all races and religions and backgrounds. They meant male landowners, who mostly were white.

“They’re trying to make it where we straight up teach the facts as we’ve always known them,” Weller said of state officials. “But it’s tough ... when sometimes we are talking about teaching primary sources that don’t paint the same picture as what’s in the textbook.”

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar, meanwhile, took issue with the notion that teachers don’t teach students facts and allow them to have free discussion based on them. It’s part of the professional code of ethics to teach and not preach, he said.

“Teachers serve as facilitators,” Spar said.

He also contended the proposed rule sends mixed messages in a couple of different ways. First, he said, it makes requirements of public school teachers while not demanding anything of private schools, though the expectations should be the same.

Also, it demands that teachers not indoctrinate in one direction, Spar said, yet makes some value judgments of its own in the state-approved standards.

Corcoran mentioned the proposed rule during a May 5 speech he made at tiny private Hillsdale College, which is known for its support of conservative principles. A video of the speech has been circulating around the state since the college posted it on YouTube last week.

Corcoran talks about the rule in the context of ensuring “crazy liberal stuff” doesn’t get into the state’s textbooks. The words “critical race theory” might not appear in the materials, he told the crowd, but “they hide it in social emotional learning.”

“You could definitely have a teacher who teaches critical race theory, so now we have to go back to (publishers) and say, if it’s electronic, we want it out,” he said.

In a separate interview, the commissioner said his goal is not to promote any specific viewpoint.

“I don’t care if you come from the hard right or the hard left. We’re not indoctrinating kids. Start educating them,” he said. “The goal of the teacher is to teach kids how to think, not what to think.”

The proposed rule should help to protect teachers in an age when students can record lessons on their phones and then complain.

“The teacher has an absolute defense. If I was teaching to the standards, I was doing my job,” Corcoran said. “The rule is simply this — be fair and just and truthful, and follow the standards.”