Florida officials must take credit for their destructive school work | Opinion

When asked about recent changes to Florida’s African-American history standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed ignorance, saying he “wasn’t involved in it.”

When the College Board announced that Florida schools must stop teaching their Advanced Placement Psychology course, owing to the state’s ban on instruction in high schools related to sexuality and gender, the state Department of Education responded by accusing the College Board of “playing games.”

And when confronted with the epidemic of book bans across the state, empowered by legislation DeSantis championed, state officials have repeatedly called them “a hoax,” while subtly shifting blame to school districts and parents.

Jonathan Friedman is director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.
Jonathan Friedman is director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.

As Florida’s public education system becomes a national embarrassment amid book bans, gag orders, teacher shortages, threats of punishment and escalating confrontations over history, math, literature and now, psychology, everyone appears to blame — everyone, that is, except for the governor and the state’s educational administrators. Continuing to pass the buck, they insist that their growing list of educational policies have not engendered censorship in schools.

The recent confrontations over African-American history and AP Psychology should lay rest to this defense.

The new history standards, approved by the Florida Board of Education in July, align with the requirements of the 2022 “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” an educational gag order that limits teachers’ ability to discuss race and racism in the classroom. The governor and other state officials pushed for and hailed the act as a “first of its kind” effort to combat so-called indoctrination. But the new standards include instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” among other concepts that have been decried and debunked by historians and advocacy groups.

Further, the Board of Education announced that superintendents should eliminate all mentions of sex and gender from AP Psychology courses, in accordance with a new state policy that, building on HB 1557 (called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics), prohibits discussion of such topics in K-12 schools.

The College Board and American Psychological Association pushed back, announcing that any AP Psychology course taught in Florida would “violate either Florida law or college requirements” and any course without sex and gender content could not be labeled “Advanced Placement.” This caused the state to back down, but not before districts canceled, then reinstituted their AP Psych curriculum amid another round of unnecessary chaos and confusion spurred by the DeSantis administration.

Consider what happened in Duval County when administrators disallowed a children’s book about Puerto Rican baseball hero Roberto Clemente from entering classrooms out of concern that it may violate the state’s ban on “critical race theory.” The state response to the outrage? “This is fake news. Florida does not ban books.”

Florida, of course, bans a tremendous number of books, as it bans large swaths of educational speech. As PEN America has documented extensively, it does so through intentionally vague legislative text that leaves schools with little choice but to over-interpret and remove anything that may raise ideological ire. These vague laws, along with directives to districts to “err on the side of caution” regarding books and curricular materials, created the chilly climate for public education that they desire.

The latest attempts to impose an ideological pall over the teaching of history and psychology are the next logical step: Instill doubt about what can be taught in schools, then introduce narrow new curricula to fill the spaces that might have once been more open to the free flow of ideas. The state’s approval of optional history curricula from the conservative PragerU, whose purpose, according to its creator, is “indoctrination,” is a further illustration of this state-led effort to commandeer public schooling to advance a narrow ideological agenda.

These developments ought to alarm all citizens. The suppression of honest discussions of history and racial and sexual identity in the classroom distorts our collective understanding of American life and threatens our ability to function as a democracy. And it is entirely by design.

The problem is not limited to Florida. At least 20 states have passed laws or implemented policies that censor classroom instruction related to race and gender. Many have copied Florida’s tactics, with a recent “Don’t Say Gay” copycat taking effect in Arkansas, and another leading to book bans in Iowa. Many more are being proposed.

The spread of educational censorship laws, with Florida taking a leading role, is a crisis not only of the classroom but of American democracy. We mustn’t let Florida officials dodge accountability for the damage they are doing. When they can place the blame on a parent, educator, textbook company, national nonprofit or local school district, state officials are able to wash their hands of the crisis facing public schools. It’s time they take credit for their work.

Sam LaFrance is program coordinator for the Freedom to Learn program and Jonathan Friedman is director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for free expression.