Why Florida’s new curriculum on slavery is becoming a political headache for Ron DeSantis

Republican governor’s right-wing record could pose a roadblock to effort to win moderate voters

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 26 July 2023 18:21 BST
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Why was a major candidate for the presidency just asked about a lesson set to be taught to middle school students in Florida social studies classes?

Governor Ron DeSantis found himself answering yet more questions about his state’s new conservative-friendly social studies curriculum at a press event in Utah over the weekend as the Republican sees continued signs that his record on racial and social issues in the Sunshine State will be an issue in the upcoming GOP primary debates and, potentially, the 2024 general election.

Mr DeSantis’s campaign held a summit with donors in Utah this past weekend where top advisers pledged a reboot to the Florida governor’s stagnating presidential bid including cutbacks to pricy expenditures including private events that have not helped his standings in the polls improve.

The candidate himself held a press conference on Friday, where the question about Florida schools was directed to him.

The Florida Department of Education’s social studies standards for the 2023-2024 school year, released this month, provide lesson topics for middle school teachers including a “benchmark clarification” which instructs educators to teach students that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit”. It isn’t clear what “their personal benefit” would be in this scenario.

The line is included as part of a broader lesson entitled: “Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).”

Mr DeSantis has come under fire for the curriculum changes, from both Democrats and Republicans alike. Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris railed against Mr DeSantis without naming the Florida governor.

“There is a national agenda afoot. Extremist so-called leaders for months have dared to ban books. … Extremists here in Florida, passing a law ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ trying to instill fear in our teachers … And now, on top of that, they want to replace history with lies.”

And former New Jersey Gov Chris Christie, who is seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, also called out the governor for what he claimed was a lack of leadership.

While the change to the curriculum itself is subtle — a single sentence added to a much larger document — the news of its insertion played into a larger narrative of Florida’s right-wing shift under the DeSantis administration. Florida schools, in particular, are the biggest battleground for this war, where liberal groups and nonpartisan experts alike warn that students are increasingly the recipients of a whitewashed educational environment devoid of anything that conservatives find unseemly or uncomfortable, such as discussions of the sins of slavery, representation of LGBT+ persons in the classroom or teaching materials, and other narratives that brush up against conservative belief systems.

The changes to Florida schools had already earned the state the condemnation of the NAACP and other civil rights groups, something that has enraged conservatives and drawn the state into an ugly national fight against any group or organisation that the governor perceives to have a liberal agenda, including the Disney corporation.

Now, he is officially a candidate for president and facing the reality that his loyally conservative record in Florida has failed to allow him to make serious inroads against Donald Trump and his support base, while he remains engaged in fighting off competitive rivals like Vivek Ramaswamy and others in the crowded Republican primary contest.

It remains to be seen whether his campaign reset (which continued this week with layoffs of roughly a third of his staff) will be a necessary fat-trimming measure or the sign of his campaign’s early demise; what is certain is that the issue of the quality of education in Florida’s schools is not going away, at least any time soon.

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