Florida board OKs Black history standards, rejects concerns about omitting history

The Florida Board of Education approved a new curriculum for African American history on Wednesday, but not without pushback.

After more than an hour of public comment, with a majority of speakers opposed, the board voted unanimously to approve the social studies standards for African American history for kindergarten through 12th grades.

Opponents say the curriculum leaves out Florida’s role in slavery and the oppression of African Americans, victim blames Black communities and uses outdated language.

In a letter to board member Ben Gibson, a group of 11 organizations, including the NAACP and the Florida Education Association, criticized the state for omitting or rewriting “key historical facts about the Black experience.”

“We owe the next generation of scholars the opportunity to know the full unvarnished history of this state and country and all who contributed to it – good and bad,” the letter reads.

At the board’s meeting in Orlando on Wednesday, members defended the curriculum and said a factual representation of history was included according to state standards. In 1994, the Legislature passed FS 1003.42 which created the African American History Task Force and requires instruction of history, culture, experiences and contributions of African Americans in the state’s K-12 curriculum.

“Everything is there,” said MaryLynn Magar, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring. “The darkest parts of our history are addressed, and I’m very proud of the task force. I can confidently say that the DOE and the task force believe that African American history is American history, and that’s represented in those standards.”

But Genesis Robinson, political director for advocacy group Equal Ground, said the curriculum only identifies and recognizes racism and prejudice and does not go into depth about how or who promoted the violence and disenfranchisement of Black people in the United States.

“When you couple these standards, with the environment, the hostility towards daring to talk about certain subjects, it creates an environment where there’s going to be a complete removal of these conversations and of these lessons in the classroom because nobody wants to run afoul of all of the laws or policies that have been put in place,” Robinson said.

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Ongoing battle with DeSantis’ education agenda

The battle over these social studies standards is the latest in an ongoing struggle between the DeSantis administration and Florida’s African American communities and educators, who say his educational agenda targets Black, brown and LGBTQ+ Floridians. 

Last year, DeSantis, who is running to be the Republican nominee for president, signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts how race is discussed in schools, colleges and workplaces and prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin.

And this spring, DOE rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies class, alleging it violated state law because of topics like Black Lives Matter, Black feminism and reparations.

The AP class has still not been approved to be taught in Florida.

This is the first year the state has created separate standards to teach African American history, said Paul Burns, chancellor of public schools for DOE. 

Paul Burns, chancellor for the Division of K-12 Public Schools at the Florida Department of Education, speaks to the House Education Quality Subcommittee at the House Office Building in the Capitol Complex in Tallahassee, Fla. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

The 13 members in the work group in charge of creating the standards for the African American history class were nominated by the task force. Currently, the task force has 11 members, but the website hasn’t been updated and still only lists six.

Six of the 11 members of the task force were appointed this summer by Education Commissioner Manny Diaz after the task force’s membership shrank to four. 

In June, the task force voted 6-4 to postpone a training event for African American history teachers to wait for Wednesday’s board decision on the curriculum. More than 300 teachers planned to attend.

Critics says curriculum lesson ‘blaming the victim’

Opponents pointed out several issues in the curriculum: Elementary and middle school students are not required to learn about African American history past Reconstruction; the middle school curriculum includes a benchmark clarification that states “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit;” and in high school, when learning about the Ocoee Massacre, the benchmark clarification states “Instruction includes acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”

“When you look at the history currently, it suggests that the (Ocoee) massacre was sparked by violence from African Americans. That’s blaming the victim,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson- D, Orlando, who is listed as an emerita board member on the task force’s website.

A historical marker about the lynching of July Perry and the Ocoee massacre was unveiled in 2019 outside the Orange County Regional History Center. A similar marker was erected the following year outside Ocoee’s Lakeshore Community Center.

The Ocoee Massacre is considered the largest incidence of voting-day violence in United States history, according to the Orange County Regional History Center. In 1920, Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote but was turned away from the polls. Later that night, a white mob tried to find Norman and his friend’s house. His friend, July Perry, was lynched, and other Black community members were murdered and their houses burned. Most of the Black community subsequently fled Ocoee and never came back.

Other examples cited by opponents of the curriculum include omitting person-first language and calling enslaved people “slaves,” and mentioning of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education but not including in the benchmark clarification that in 1957, the Florida Legislature passed a resolution in opposition of the decision that ended legal segregation in schools.

FILE - This May 8, 1964 file photo shows Linda Brown Smith standing in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the

It also does not mention that Florida seceded from the union during the Civil War, Robinson said.

“This is what we’re saying when we say that the standards are so porous because they’re incomplete,” he said.

At the beginning of public comment, chairman of the task force Glen Gilzean defended the work group’s efforts and reiterated DeSantis’ stance he took in February when the governor was accused of “whitewashing” African American History by requiring changes to the AP African American Studies course.

Glenton Gilzean Jr.

“Black history is American history, and we’ve heard that repeated time and time again this morning,” Gilzean, who has been appointed to numerous boards and commissions by DeSantis, including his latest position on the Florida Commission of Ethics.

“Let’s be clear, Florida already requires the teaching of African American history,” Gilzean continued, “but the new standards align these requirements and will hold teachers accountable to ensure that complete and accurate African American history continues to be taught.”

 Ana Goñi-Lessan is the State Watchdog Reporter for USA TODAY- Florida and can be reached at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com. Follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan. 

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