Florida still won’t explain why it rejected math textbooks

Officials charge that book publishers are working to “indoctrinate” children, but offer no evidence.
The Florida Department of Education said 41 percent of the math textbooks submitted by publishers failed to meet “Florida’s lofty standards for math instruction.”
The Florida Department of Education said 41 percent of the math textbooks submitted by publishers failed to meet “Florida’s lofty standards for math instruction.” [ Times (2015) ]
Published April 18, 2022|Updated April 18, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Days after rejecting dozens of math textbooks for including what the state Department of Education claimed were “indoctrinating concepts,” Florida officials on Monday continued to refuse requests for examples.

The material is “proprietary,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference.

The lack of information caused a buzz over the weekend, with the state’s announcement capturing attention nationally as the latest flame in ongoing classroom culture wars.

Local school officials, publishers and other interested parties scrambled for specifics and were left scratching their heads as to what exactly the state was talking about when it said math textbooks contained “prohibited topics,” including references to critical race theory.

“Textbook selection has always been a highly politicized area,” said Christopher Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “It is not a surprise that textbooks are being attacked. It just seems so bizarre that they managed to find CRT in math textbooks. It is direct from satire.”

Several publishers whose books were rejected did not respond to requests for comment. Richard Weir, spokesperson for publishing giant Savvas Learning (formerly Pearson), said his company has had “a long and successful track record” with Florida education officials and worked to ensure its materials would meet the state’s new standards.

“Like many other companies that submitted bids to the Florida DOE, Savvas has been notified that some of our math programs developed specifically for Florida have not been recommended at this time. Once we obtain additional information from the state as to the specific reasons why, Savvas will work toward an appropriate resolution,” he said via email.

Related: Read the list of math titles rejected by Florida

As the nation talked about Florida’s unusual textbook move, DeSantis administration officials doubled down. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez appeared on Fox & Friends Monday morning to argue that publishers are conspiring to indoctrinate children.

“What we’ve seen is a systematic attempt by these publishers to infiltrate our children’s education by embedding topics such as CRT,” said Nuñez, who characterized the state’s book vetting process as “very transparent.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]

A few hours later, DeSantis told reporters at a news conference that the state has not released specific examples from the rejected books because the text is considered “proprietary information.”

“I would like it to be released, but I also respect the process,” he told reporters.

His comments appear to clash with the intent of a measure that DeSantis signed into law a couple of weeks ago. That law aims to bring more transparency into Florida school districts’ book selection process. It says districts must provide access to all materials “before the district school board takes any official action on such materials.”

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The lack of information has left many local school officials scrambling for clarity as they prepare to select instructional materials for their classrooms. Districts don’t have to purchase books from the state-approved list, but they attempt to have materials that meet the state’s academic expectations.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida’s largest district, said it was “awaiting feedback from the state as to why the titles were rejected.”

“We’re trying to understand what’s going on (and) what the issue at hand is,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, United Teachers of Dade president. “This is smoke and mirrors. This is the shiny object. No one is complaining about math books, but (state GOP leaders) are turning it into an issue.”

In Orange and Pinellas counties, the information matters because they have already selected their new math book for the 2022-23 school year. None of the books those districts picked for elementary math classes were on the state approved list.

“I’ve never seen a K-5 list of only one selection,” said Kevin Hendrick, chief academic officer for Pinellas schools. “It was a little surprising to not see the textbooks that our teachers chose.”

The state has a textbook adoption cycle that rotates through subjects every six years. The process is not new, and it is not the first time books have not been included in a state-approved list. What is unusual, state officials said, is that 41 percent of the books — 54 of the 132 textbooks publishers submitted — failed to meet “Florida’s lofty standards for math instruction.”

Hendrick said the district’s review of the books did not reveal any critical race theory in the lessons. The inclusion of social-emotional learning might be inferred, he said, because publishers are following state standards for helping students see math as approachable and relevant.

Social-emotional learning, also known by its acronym SEL, is based on the idea that emotional skills are crucial to academic performance in school.

“I don’t know how those are being implemented in math problems,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “To me the onus is on the state to provide evidence of what they’re talking about.”

Lea Mitchell, director of leading and learning for Pasco County schools, said her district decided not to choose an elementary math series for the coming year because of some of the reasons the state cited for rejecting them.

“Our concern was the same about publishers not being able to adequately adapt elementary textbooks to meet the B.E.S.T. standards in the time given,” she said.

But not knowing what officials are referring to when they criticize content as “indoctrination” could prove problematic for educators as they attempt to find materials for their classrooms. State law says that districts may spend up to 50 percent of their state allocation for books that are not on department adoption lists.

“If they want to point it out to us, that is what I think is very worrisome,” Mitchell said.

Stephana Ferrell of Orange County is a leader of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. The group has been fighting efforts to remove books from school libraries in several counties.

Ferrell acknowledged the state’s authority to set guidelines for textbooks and curriculum is much stricter than determining what goes into libraries. She was not surprised about the direction the state took on math books, suggesting it advances the DeSantis narrative that Floridians cannot trust public education.

DeSantis “scores easy points with the base and he looks like a hero for stopping the bad guys yet again,” Ferrell said.

Jeremy Young, senior manager of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program, said in a statement that the textbook decision “raises serious concerns about whether these decisions are being made based on pedagogy or politics.”

In the past year, DeSantis and Florida Republicans have made no secret of their disagreements with local school officials. Mask mandates, classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in some primary grades and restrictions on race-related topics have all been targets, and been part of a broad GOP effort to energize its base ahead of the midterm election.

At DeSantis’ request, the State Board of Education last year also banned lessons that deal with critical race theory, an academic concept focused on the idea that racism is systemic and entwined in American society.

After reading the department’s announcement, Ferrell said she went back to the Orange County district website to review the online versions of its recommended math textbooks, which were made public because of state requirements.

She said she found a few examples where lessons focused on such ideas as the statistical probability of being arrested by race, based on existing data. If that’s what the state is talking about, Ferrell said, her group disputes the definition of “indoctrination.”

“Indoctrination is not having it in the book but removing it from the conversation,” she said. “We want our children to go and be educated in a school that looks like the real world, that acts like the real world, that challenges their beliefs.”

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said he worries that the Department of Education’s action on the math books might foreshadow how it will approach other subjects, including how it carries out HB 1557 on the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity. Critics have called the new law vague, leaving decisions about what may and may not be included to the department.

The state will be reviewing social studies textbooks next year.

“The Department of Education has been politicized by Ron DeSantis, by his appointees and by Moms for Liberty,” Smith said. “Their assessment of what is and is not appropriate for students is totally out of sync with a majority of Floridians.”

Miami Herald reporters Sommer Brugal and Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.

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