Florida school guidelines can punish trans students and teach how slavery ‘developed skills’ for Black people

Civil rights groups, lawmakers and educators blast ‘inaccurate and a scary’ African American history standards

Alex Woodward
Thursday 20 July 2023 21:30 BST
Florida Approves Revision of Black History Lessons

A new set of standards for African American history in Florida schools will teach middle schoolers how enslaved people “developed skills” that could be “applied for personal benefit”.

Another guideline instructs high schoolers to be taught that a massacre led by white supremacists against Black residents in Ocoee to stop them from voting in 1920 included “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”

Members of the Florida Board of Education have defended the standards for African American history lessons they unanimously approved, with Ron DeSantis-appointed board member MaryLynn Magar assuring the attendees at a hearing in Orlando on 19 July that “everything is there” and that “the darkest parts of our history are addressed” in the curriculum.

But civil rights advocates, educators, Democratic lawmakers and Vice President Kamala Harris have warned that elements of the guidelines present a distorted, revisionist picture of the state’s history of racism.

“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it,” Ms Harris said in remarks from Indianapolis, Indiana on 20 July.

“The notion that enslaved people benefitted from being enslaved is inaccurate and a scary standard for us to establish in our education system,” Democratic state Rep Anna Eskamani told the board during Wednesday’s hearing.

State Senator Geraldine Thompson said that a recommendation suggesting that Black people sparked the Ocoee massacre is “blaming the victim”.

Ms Thompson helped pass a law in 2020 that requires schools to teach lessons about the massacre.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in a statement that the standards represent “a big step backward for a state that has required teaching African American history” for more than three decades.

“Our children deserve nothing less than truth, justice, and the equity our ancestors shed blood, sweat, and tears for,” NAACP president Derrick Johnson added in a statement. “It is imperative that we understand that the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow were a violation of human rights and represent the darkest period in American history. We refuse to go back.”

The new standards add another victory in the DeSantis administration’s radical education overhaul and a “parents’ rights” agenda that has restricted honest lessons of race and racism in state schools, reshaped local school boards, and banned public colleges from offering classes that “distort significant events” or “teach identity politics”.

Florida’s Board of Education also adopted five rules targeting LGBT+ students, including punishing transgender students and staff who use restrooms that align with their gender and add barriers to students who want their names and pronouns respected in and out of the classroom.

LGBT+ advocates have accused the board and the governor’s administration of weaponizing state agencies to implement the DeSantis agenda as he mounts a national campaign, fuelled in part by what opponents have called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation adopted by several other states.

That bill, which Mr DeSantis signed into law in 2022 and expanded earlier this year, has sparked fears that its broad scope could be used to effectively block discussion of LGBT+ people, history and events from state schools, and threaten schools with potential lawsuits over perceived violations.

“This politically motivated war on parents, students, and educators needs to stop,” said Jennifer Solomon with Equality Florida.

“Our students deserve classrooms where all families are treated with the respect they deserve and all young people are welcomed,” she said in a statement. “Let parents be parents. Let educators be educators. And stop turning our kids’ classrooms into political battlefields to score cheap points.”

Florida Democratic state Senator Geraldine Thompson speaks out against controversial recommendations for African American history lessons approved b Florida’s Board of Education on 19 July
Florida Democratic state Senator Geraldine Thompson speaks out against controversial recommendations for African American history lessons approved b Florida’s Board of Education on 19 July (AP)

The African American history curriculum advanced by the board does not fully adopt the recommendations from the African American History Task Force, which urged the board to consider “contemporary issues impacting Africans and African Americans”.

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz defended the standards as an “in-depth, deep dive into African American history, which is clearly American history as Governor DeSantis has said, and what Florida has done is expand it.”

Under the new standards, students will be taught to simply “identify” famous Black people, but it fails to add requirements for students to learn about their contributions, challenges and stories overall.

“We must do better in offering a curriculum that is both age-appropriate and truthful,” according to Democratic state Rep Dianne Hart, chair of Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus.

“Education is a critical part of an individual’s personal foundation and when you chose to build a foundation on falsehoods, lies, or by simply erasing history, you’ve laid a foundation that will ultimately fail,” she said in a statement.

The board’s adoption of the standards follow the board’s decision to ban the teaching of Advanced Placement African American Studies in high schools, claiming that the course “significantly lacks educational value” and “inexplicably” contradicted Florida law.

A letter dated 12 January from the Florida Department of Education to the College Board, which administers AP exams, said the board is welcome to return to the agency with “lawful, historically accurate content”.

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