Several South Florida high school educators are alarmed that a new state civics initiative designed to prepare students to be “virtuous citizens” is infused with a Christian and conservative ideology after a three-day training session in Broward County last week.
Teachers who spoke to the Times/Herald said they don’t object to the state’s new standards for civics, but they do take issue with how the state wants them to be taught.
“It was very skewed,” said Barbara Segal, a 12th-grade government teacher at Fort Lauderdale High School. “There was a very strong Christian fundamentalist way toward analyzing different quotes and different documents. That was concerning.”
The civics training, which is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, underscores the tension that has been building around education, making classrooms into battlegrounds for politically contentious issues. In Florida, DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature have pushed policies that limit what schools can teach about race, gender identity and certain aspects of history.
Those dynamics came into full view last week, when trainers told Broward teachers the nation’s founders did not desire a strict separation of state and church, downplayed the role the colonies and later the United States had in the history of slavery in America and pushed a judicial theory, favored by legal conservatives like DeSantis, that requires people to interpret the Constitution as the framers intended it, not as a living, evolving document, according to three educators who attended the training.
DeSantis’ administration has spent nearly $6 million to train public school teachers across the state on how to teach civics as part of the governor’s initiative. The first training sessions were held June 20-22 at Broward College in Davie. Teachers in Hillsborough County are training this week.
“It is disturbing, really, that through these workshops and through legislation, there is this attempt to both censor and to drive or propagandize particular points of view,” said Richard Judd, 50, a Nova High School social studies teacher with 22 years of experience who attended the state-led training session last week.
Leto High School social studies teacher Michelle Stover attended the state’s civics training program this week at Hillsborough Community College. Stover also had concerns about the materials being presented.
“It feels like politics invaded more than it should have into our civics training,” Stover said.
A review of more than 200 pages of the state’s presentations show that the founding fathers’ intent and the “misconceptions” about their thinking were a main theme of the training. One slide underscored that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.” Without virtue, another slide noted, citizens become “licentious” and become subject to tyranny.
Another slide highlights three U.S. Supreme Court cases to show when the “Founders’ original intent began to change.” That included the 1962 landmark case that found school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which Judd said trainers viewed as unjust. At one point, the trainers equated it to the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
“Ending school prayer was compared to upholding segregation,” Judd said. In other words, he said, trainers called both those rulings unjust.
On slavery, the state said that two-thirds of the founding fathers were slave owners but emphasized that “even those that held slaves did not defend the institution.”
State says every lesson ‘based on history’
The civics training is the latest effort in a long line of education policies that aims to fight what DeSantis and conservative education reformers say are “woke ideologies” in public schools.
It also provides a snapshot of how national groups, including Hillsdale College, a politically influential private Christian college in southern Michigan, are working with the DeSantis administration to reshape education in the state. The goal is to put a greater emphasis on civics than on socially divisive issues such as race and gender identity, which DeSantis has said is an effort to reorient teaching away from “indoctrination and back towards education.” But to several educators who went through the state’s training, it felt like a broader effort to impose a conservative view on historical events.
“We are constantly under attack, and there is this false narrative that we’re indoctrinating children, but that is nothing compared to what the state just threw in new civic educators’ faces. That’s straight-up indoctrination,” said Segal, a 46-year-old teacher with 19 years of experience.
The Florida Department of Education is leading the workshops, which were developed with the help of Hillsdale College and other groups. The Bill of Rights Institute, founded by Charles Koch in 1999, is one of those groups. Another is the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, which is a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. The state aims to train about 2,500 teachers in 10 sessions across the state.
The three-day sessions are voluntary, but teachers get a $700 stipend as an incentive to attend. Under the governor’s civics initiative, teachers this fall will also be eligible for a $3,000 bonus if they complete a 60-hour online course on the new civics standards and earn a “Civics Seal of Excellence Endorsement.”
The Times/Herald reached out to John Duebel, the state’s director of social studies and the arts for the bureau of standards and instructional support, but he declined to be interviewed and referred questions to the Florida Department of Education’s communications office. A request for comment from the governor was also referred to the Department of Education.
“Every lesson we teach is based on history, not ideology or any form of indoctrination. Let us know if you are actually interested in reviewing the coursework and understanding it for yourself,” the Florida Department of Education said in a statement on Friday when asked about the session and educators’ concerns. On Tuesday afternoon, the department provided the slide presentations, which were reviewed by the Times/Herald. The documents provided did not include the trainers’ comments for each slide.
Fighting ‘leftist ideologies’ in school
DeSantis and Republican lawmakers increasingly talk about how they believe the “woke left” is posing a threat to the public education system in Florida.
DeSantis describes a battle for the next generation in education. His former education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, told the Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar last spring that education is “100% ideological,” which is why picking leaders is so crucial. He added that leaders need to be strategic and quick when implementing policies to make sure they have impact.
“Education is our sword. That’s our weapon. Our weapon is education,” Corcoran said. “And we can do it. We can get it right.”
The DeSantis administration has implemented its education agenda through a renewed emphasis on civics, and he has approved measures that limit what schools can teach about racism and other aspects of history. His Department of Education has rejected math textbooks for containing what the state called “indoctrinating concepts.”
“I think what parents are doing is they are reorienting the school system away from indoctrination and back towards education, where we have a premium on doing what a core part of education should be,” DeSantis, who is running for reelection, said in an interview with the Focus on the Family podcast on June 3.
Educators rattled by state’s teaching approach
For Tatiana Ahlbum, 25, a second-year 12th-grade government and economics teacher at Fort Lauderdale High who attended the Broward sessions last week, the state’s training underscores an effort to depart from how history and civics has traditionally been taught in favor of an approach the DeSantis administration advocates.
“It was a bit different than a typical training,” Ahlbum said. Previously, trainers would “show us how to teach the information. But this time, instead of being shown how to implement the standards, they kind of went the opposite way. They presented this history as if none of us had learned it before.”
Throughout the sessions, teachers said, facilitators emphasized that most enslaved people in the country were born into slavery and that the colonies didn’t buy nearly as many enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade as has been portrayed, Ahlbum said. The framing, she added, felt as though America was being characterized as “less bad” when it came to slavery.
One slide noted that less than 4% of enslaved people in the Western hemisphere were in colonial America and that the number only increased through birth. (For context, there were nearly 4 million enslaved people among the 31 million in the overall U.S. population in 1860, according to documentation in the Library of Congress.)
Another slide quotes presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saying they wanted legislation to outlaw slavery, without mentioning that both were slave owners. The quotes were not sourced, a theme that the educators noticed throughout the training session.
“We were not told which documents stated this or how to find them, just that they existed,” Ahlbum said.
At one point, Ahlbum said, a state facilitator told a table of 12th-grade government teachers that their students will need the most clarity on socialism because “they think it’s the best thing ever,” which Ahlbum said isn’t true of her seniors. The assumption, she said, made it seem like students are “looked down on” because they have information state officials may not like or agree with.
Several presentation slides emphasized that it was a “misconception” that the “Founders desired strict separation of church and state and the Founders only wanted to protect Freedom of worship.” During breakout sessions, the state’s presenters repeatedly mentioned the influence Jesus Christ and the Bible had on the country’s foundation.
“There was this Christian nationalism philosophy that was just baked into everything that was there,” Judd said.
But Judd noted that the state’s presentation glossed over the different Christian denominations. He said trainers suggested Christianity meant the same thing to the nation’s founders, which he thought was “one of the significant shortcomings” of the training session.
Judd says he has for years mentioned Christianity as an influence in American history, but the state’s trainers were telling teachers to go beyond that. He said the state delivered the instruction in a way that made it seem as though Christianity was the “only viewpoint” that the Founding Fathers had in mind for the country.
“People were profoundly religious in those eras. It’s not to be discounted one bit,” Judd said. “But their (the state’s) thesis that the intent of the founders was to have this wonderful Christian world is a specious claim at best.”
The emphasis on religion seems to mirror DeSantis’ comments.
“What the left is doing is they are saying religion’s role in the public square should be eliminated, and they will cite the First Amendment and establishment of religion, which was not what it was intended to do,” DeSantis said earlier this month on a Focus of the Family podcast. “They are trying to establish a religion of their own. This woke ideology functions as a religion, obviously it is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they want that to be effectively the governing faith of our country.”
“They want to impose their world view to the exclusion of the rest of us,” the governor added.
Teachers brace for changes
The training’s approach is worrisome to the future of the profession, said Segal. Young teachers could be influenced by the agenda being pushed by the DeSantis administration, she said.
“For those new teachers that are entering the force, this is the cornerstone of what they’re leaning on, and those that don’t have much content knowledge yet are going to rely heavily on the method in which these facilitators taught,” Segal said.
Ahlbum and Segal reiterated that state standards aren’t controversial. Instead, their concerns regarded how facilitators instructed teachers to teach the material.
For example, Segal said, the phrase, “all men are created equal,” was mentioned to explain the Declaration of Independence and later the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in 1863. “But when you study historical documents within the time period that they were written, ‘All men are created equal’ refers to white, land-owning men,” she said.
What’s more, teachers said, was the inability to debate or question how certain topics were being presented. When a question was asked, Ahlbum said, the facilitator would deflect it or say they’d return to the discussion and later would not.
During the training in Hillsborough, several teachers pushed back against the messaging, said Stover of Leto High School. She said some of the presenters allowed for more discussion while others did not. It appeared new materials also were added to the original information offered in Broward sessions, she observed.
“Part of our responsibility as instructors is to not give only one viewpoint,” said Stover, in her 13th year teaching social studies courses. “That was disappointing in the training. Certainly, federalism and originalism were pushed, and they felt politically motivated. I think many teachers will go back and do the right thing for their students.”
For Stephen Backs, 55, a 27-year history teacher at Hialeah Gardens High School in Miami-Dade County, the question now becomes: How do teachers teach history — particularly as it relates to slavery and events like the civil rights movement — without acknowledging that there were some evil actions.
Amid deepening tensions between parents and school boards — and parents’ ability to question a teacher’s lesson — Backs said he fears that some teachers will be afraid to discuss certain topics in an effort to keep their jobs.
“What I’m seeing here is a governor who is trying to demonize public education,” said Backs, who didn’t attend the training but reviewed a series of slides from the event. “In the long run, it’s going to do so much damage. We’ve made so many advances, and (the administration) is trying to split us apart again. It’s going to cost us our culture.”
This isn’t the first time concerns about the impact of DeSantis’ efforts have been heard.
Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who has been an educator himself, said that the administration’s education policies highlight the concerns he raised when they were first being proposed and rolled out.
“I knew this was going to happen,” Jones said after reviewing some of the material. “They are very intentional about their approach and their selective history.”
Miami Herald staff writer Sommer Brugal reported from Miami, and Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee.
Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this story.
Clarification: The story was updated to clarify a $3,000 bonus is part of the Civics Seal of Excellence Endorsement under Florida’s Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, and to add the contribution of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, which is a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.