Florida education board votes to keep critical race theory out of schools

Members stressed that the rule does not aim to keep Black history out of classrooms.
Activist Ben Frazier, left, is asked to leave after shouting chants of "Allow teachers to teach the truth" during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday, where members voted to ban lessons on critical race theory.
Activist Ben Frazier, left, is asked to leave after shouting chants of "Allow teachers to teach the truth" during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday, where members voted to ban lessons on critical race theory.
Published June 10, 2021|Updated June 11, 2021

Lessons that deal with critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” are not welcome in Florida’s public schools following a State Board of Education vote on Thursday.

At the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the board unanimously adopted a rule that, in the words of member Tom Grady, emphasizes historical facts over “fiction, projects or theory masquerading as fact.”

Grady offered an amendment that named critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” as examples of two well-known educational approaches that would not be acceptable in classrooms.

Critical race theory is a perspective some teachers employ to explain how racism and race have impacted American life through history and continue to cause inequities. “The 1619 Project” is a New York Times initiative that re-centered the focus on the nation’s history on the year the first enslaved Africans arrived. It uses race as a lens to describe events since then, and includes a curriculum that can be used in schools.

Grady’s proposal also spelled out more specifically which subject areas would be required to be taught beyond the Holocaust, which was the only one mentioned in the original version of the rule.

Those include civil rights and slavery. Grady suggested that those additions spoke to critics who accused the governor and board of attempting to gloss over history, while at the same time clarifying for teachers what the state expects.

“I think our intent should be clear,” board member Ben Gibson said in support of the amendment.

The board, meeting in Jacksonville, did not offer details about how it expected the rule to be enforced. Teachers union leaders speculated that specifics would be left to districts, and largely center on complaints that come from students or parents.

State Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said she worried the rule could give rise to more video recording of teachers in classrooms. That’s something the Republican legislative majority authorized this spring at the university level, where some contended liberal viewpoints were being advanced at the expense of conservative voices.

Mixed reaction

The board’s action came after more than an hour of public testimony for and against the rule. Some residents called for the schools to remove any vestige of critical race theory, which one speaker called “a Marxist tactic to divide our country.”

“This is not something that we can stand for in our country,” said Keisha King, a Duval County parent representing Moms for Liberty. She objected to the idea of categorizing people into “oppressor” and “oppressed,” calling the concept dangerous and racist.

Others deemed the perspective important to understand the nation’s history.

“When people are too afraid to have the conversation, how will we ever progress?” Duval County student Grace May asked the board.

After Northside Coalition of Jacksonville founder Ben Frazier blasted the proposal as “Republican political propaganda” that aims to “whitewash, cover up and candy-coat history,” the room broke into a chant of “Allow teachers to teach the truth!” It prompted the board to take a five-minute break and clear the room.

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The public comment and debate came after DeSantis addressed the board remotely. Florida must have an education system that is “preferring fact over narrative,” DeSantis said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks remotely to the Florida State Board of Education on Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks remotely to the Florida State Board of Education on Thursday. [ The Florida Channel ]

That means keeping “outrageous” approaches such as critical race theory out of the lessons, the governor said. He listed examples from New York and Arizona as objectionable, and said they should not occur in Florida.

Superintendents across the state have said they do not teach critical race theory in their schools. But that did not stop the State Board from considering the rule.

Related: What is critical race theory, and why are conservatives blocking it?

Many teachers protested in the days before the session, saying they do not attempt to indoctrinate their students as the governor and others have suggested, but rather present facts and allow children to explore the ideas.

Some have said it appears the governor is seeking to keep important lessons about Black history out of the schools in order to paint a partisan “patriotic” vision of the nation.

DeSantis said that’s not the case. He noted that state law requires the teaching of slavery, civil rights and more. “It is required to be taught, and it absolutely should be,” he said.

Teachers simply must not depart from the historical record to present a narrative that says the nation is rotten, he added.

A national movement

DeSantis has been calling on schools to keep critical race theory out of schools for several months. His campaign falls in line with a national Republican effort to promote patriotism in civics and history lessons, while suggesting that school initiatives that focus on race and diversity engender hate and divisiveness.

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis targets critical race theory as Florida examines academic standards

Texas and Idaho are among the other states that have considered legislation barring schools from using the approach in which educators and students analyze U.S. law, culture and society through the lens of race.

DeSantis was unable to persuade Florida lawmakers to consider such a measure when he promoted a multimillion-dollar civics initiative earlier this year. So he looked to education commissioner Richard Corcoran and the State Board to implement a rule that targets the goal.

To have a long-lasting effect, lawmakers eventually will have to incorporate the rule into law, said Gibson, the State Board member.

Some critics suggested that the governor’s effort had little to do with what’s taught in Florida schools.

“I think it is a political statement,” Cruz said.

She and others observed that when DeSantis recently signed a social media oversight bill into law he declared, “Speech that is inconvenient to the narrative will be protected.” He also said, “We cannot have people whitewash the Holocaust in Florida schools” during a town hall meeting which Cruz also participated in.

Yet DeSantis, they argue, is doing what he criticizes in others — advancing a narrative of his own when it comes to race relations.

“It is indeed hypocritical,” Cruz said.

Keeping out the ‘crazy liberal stuff’

Other recent comments have led many observers to a similar conclusion. During a May speech to a conservative Michigan college, Corcoran spoke about the need to “keep all the crazy liberal stuff out” of instructional material.

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

The Department of Education took steps toward achieving Corcoran’s goal before the State Board met. On Wednesday, it sent a memo to math book publishers, telling them to not incorporate “unsolicited strategies,” such as social emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching, into the next wave of textbooks.

“These strategies are not called for in the specifications because they are not aligned to (Florida’s educational standards) and, therefore, should not be in your instructional materials,” chancellor Jacob Oliva wrote.

The State Board is scheduled to consider updates to standards relating to civics and Holocaust education in July.

Clarification: Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” An earlier version of this story was imprecise about the commendation.