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Teaching African-American and Holocaust history? Prove it, Florida Board of Education says

School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. [The Florida Channel]
Published Sep. 20

Florida law includes a list of subject areas that must be taught in the public schools.

The law covers everything from the core subjects to about 20 more specific lessons such as kindness to animals, the sacrifices of military veterans and recently approved classes on mental health.

But are all schools teaching those materials? The question came into stark relief last spring, after a Palm Beach County principal told a parent his high school would not have Holocaust lessons because he wasn’t sure the Holocaust occurred.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran reacted first by asking Palm Beach district officials to demonstrate how the requirement, established in law in 1994, was being followed there. It soon grew into a statewide demand.

RELATED: Getting tough: Florida’s education chief Richard Corcoran tells school districts to fall in line

On Friday, the Florida Board of Education adopted a rule mandating all districts report which courses they offer to meet all the required lessons, who teaches them and how they’re being taught. The rule also outlines the specific penalties that districts could face for failing to follow the law.

“Twenty-five years is more than enough,” Corcoran said, referring to the date when the Holocaust and African-American history requirement was placed into law. “For it not to happen for 25 years, it warrants a significant penalty.”

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat, was there to cheer on the board. She said she found it appalling that some schools are not meeting the instructional requirements.

“Your role is to look at what is enacted by the Legislature and ensure that it happens,” Thompson told the board. “Unless there is measurement, unless there is some kind of inspection, it doesn’t happen.”

She reiterated her commitment to filing new legislation that would withhold a superintendent’s salary if his or her district cannot demonstrate adherence to the mandate of teaching about the Holocaust and African-American history. The bill, Thompson said, will “put some teeth into the law.”

Some members of the audience told the board that it would make sense to apply its rules on the required instruction — including the board’s newly adopted requirement for child trafficking awareness education — on all schools including charters. If the lessons are so important, they said, why shouldn’t all children learn them?

The required instruction statute does not currently apply to charter schools.

“When you have these rules, be very clear which schools the rules are going to apply to,” activist Donna Mace said.

K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva told the board that most of the required lessons are embedded in state academic standards. He said the department will work with districts and schools to make sure they know how the two connect, to make it easier to see the connections and report what the schools are offering.

Board member Ben Gibson, who supported the rule, said he appreciated that effort.

“As we continue to create new requirements, we want to hold school districts responsible, but we also don’t want them to spend half their time filling out a report,” Gibson said.

The board unanimously adopted the new rule.

It also approved a different rule that bars schools with approved turnaround plans from changing principals without explicit state authorization.

RELATED: Turnaround schools would need state approval to change principals under new proposal

That proposal brought out a large group of Alachua County residents who raised concerns about the state rule that forced a well loved and successful principal out of a long struggling elementary school serving a primarily low-income minority student body.

Several speakers noted Alachua County’s large achievement gap between white and African-American students, and noted that the school in question has struggled to find and keep educators. This principal came in and was making a difference, they said, but needed more time when the state rules insisted she leave.

“Be mindful of the rules you make ... and the impact they have upon the local schools,” Alachua School Board member Tina Certain told the State Board.

Corcoran and State Board members said they would look more closely at the Alachua County situation, suggesting it sounded unacceptable to them.


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