South Florida schools face chaos as state bans math books with ‘prohibited topics’

South Florida schools may have to scramble to purchase new math textbooks after the state rejected some of their selections, saying the books may contain material that’s unsuitable for the state’s public schools.

The districts were ready to spend millions of dollars — more than $34 million in Broward County alone — so the new textbooks would be on campuses when the new school year starts in August.


The Department of Education says some of the textbooks the districts chose include material that is prohibited in Florida, such as the teaching about critical race theory. The state has not provided passages about the “prohibited topics,” or said specifically what is objectionable about each rejected book. State officials said Monday publishers will be able to appeal.

The biggest effect may be on elementary math. The state released a list Friday of approved K-5 regular math textbooks, and only one publisher, Houston-based Accelerate Learning, was on the list.


The Broward School Board agreed to buy K-5 math books from a different publisher, New Jersey-based Savvas Learning Co., following a March 29 public hearing. It planned to give final approval Tuesday, but now some of its selections are prohibited, according to documents the state Department of Education issued Tuesday.

The district’s academic department will now withdraw the item from Tuesday’s agenda “pending further review and guidance” from the Department of Education, district spokesman John Sullivan said.

Miami-Dade had planned to use K-5 books from the Pennsylvania publisher Big Ideas Learning, but they didn’t make the state’s cut either. The district is also waiting on guidance from the state before making any more decisions, a spokesman said.

The Palm Beach County School District refused to say whether it has approved textbooks for next year, but some selections on a 2020-21 list published on their website contain unapproved materials, including K-5 books from Savvas.

Broward School Board member Debbi Hixon said it was her understanding that the district chose from books on a state-approved list.

“Why are they now going through the list again and not approving them?” she asked. “This seems counter-productive that they would go back and say, ‘Just kidding.’”

A spokesperson for the department did not respond to questions about why its decision came late in the textbook adoption process.

The Florida Department of Education said Friday that it rejected dozens of math books on the list of 132 it had published previously because the texts contained “critical race theory,” dubbed CRT, “social emotional learning” or other “prohibited topics” and “unsolicited strategies,” mixed in with math lessons. Most of the rejected books were for elementary schools.


At Broward’s March 29 hearing to adopt math textbooks, no one from the public came out to speak, but one written comment that foreshadowed the state’s concerns about math textbooks. Chief of Staff Jeff Moquin only read a portion of the comments from Lighthouse Point resident Christine Speedy, saying “part of it could be considered insensitive.”

Her comment opposed the math textbooks from Savvas Learning Company, saying its material related to critical race theory, gender identity and social-emotional learning.

“Half of BCPS students are below grade level reading so schools must do a better job of rigorous math teaching without distractions, including tons of unnecessary text,” she wrote. “That means math problems, not lessons on inclusivity, geography, immigration, or worst of all, [social-emotional learning] embedded into the curriculum.”

Examples she cited in her letter, which were not read publicly, include a cartoon character “that is clearly gender-neutral;” a character waving a Honduran flag next to a math problem related to the population of Honduras; and a girl named “Yonita,” which she said is not common American name.

“None of this is needed to solve the math problem,” she said.

Critical race theory, first proposed by legal scholars, says racism is embedded in the country’s institutions. Historically, the theory has been a law or graduate school subject and not one taught in public schools.


But critics rallying against it say its tenets have seeped into K-12 classrooms with the aim to make white children feel guilty and to teach children to hate the United States. At DeSantis’ urging, the State Board of Education banned the teaching of CRT in June, and during its recent regular session the Florida Legislature passed a bill to enhance what he called his “anti-woke” position against CRT.

The concept of “social and emotional learning” is popular in schools and is viewed as a way to help students manage their emotions, set goals, show empathy for others and make responsible decisions. But some critics of CRT view “social and emotional learning” as another way to slip in race-based lessons.

In her comments, Speedy cited a quote that said “to have a growth mindset, give yourself time to learn,” as an example of social-emotional learning being infused into math books.

In a brief interview Monday afternoon, Speedy, who identifies herself as a parent and entrepreneur, said when she heard the district was approving math textbooks, she started researching and found most of the material she objected to on the district’s website.

In a statement, Savvas spokesman Richard Weir said the company “has a long and successful track record of working with the Florida Department of Education to ensure that our instructional materials deliver high-quality, research-based pedagogy designed intentionally to align with the current Florida standards for mathematics.”

He said “once we obtain additional information from the state as to the specific reasons why” certain books were rejected, “Savvas will work toward an appropriate resolution.”


Whether the Department of Education agrees with Speedy’s objections is unknown.

State officials for the second day refused to release any specific examples of material that may be objectionable. In a news conference in Jacksonville on Monday, DeSantis said the textbooks contain proprietary information.

“It’s not because [state education officials] don’t want to release it,” he said. “It’s just because these are textbooks and this is how they do it. So some of those textbooks will be able to say, ‘Hey, we should appeal.’ Some may agree to tweak some of the things. … I would like it to be released, but I also respect the process.”

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, like their Republican counterparts across the country, have railed against CRT in the past year.

The state’s math textbook announcement angered his critics — and confused many educators.

“I’m baffled,” said Walter Secada, a professor in the department of teaching and learning at the University of Miami who has consulted on math textbooks for the McGraw Hill publishing company. “What math series has anything to do with critical race theory?”


Secada has not worked recently for McGraw Hill and is not listed as an author of the McGraw Hill elementary school books recently developed for — and rejected by — Florida.

But he said the company math books he reviewed previously did not delve into the topics the state cited in its announcement Friday.

“I think that it is an unfortunate distraction from what do we need to do to get kids to learn this stuff,” he added.

Jim Gard, an algebra teacher at Monarch High in Coconut Creek, said he too was confused. He said he’s never noticed critical race theory in any books he’s used.

“I would love to know what is in these books. Show me the pages,” he said. “I don’t see any logic to this. There is missing information.”