As the new semester began, teachers throughout Florida were faced with new state laws strictly limiting curricula—prompting schools to remove droves of books from their classrooms and libraries for fear of being in violation of the draconian but opaque new laws. An already-chilling reality gripping the third most populous state is getting even chillier in the wake of controversial legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Stop Woke Act, which both went into effect in July 2022.
The DeSantis administration rolled out several initiatives in January 2023 aimed at eliminating broad swathes of the existing curriculum, including banning the teaching of Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies for high school students throughout Florida. Said initiatives also required public colleges and universities to detail any spending related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives or Critical Race Theory, including listing any programs, staff, or courses that may qualify.
In a Jan. 12 letter sent to the non-profit College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement courses, the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Articulation defended its decision to ban the high school course in the State of Florida, claiming the AP African American Studies course is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
One teacher in southern Florida who requested to remain anonymous criticized DeSantis’s policies, citing his demonstrated animosity toward Black people in Florida and portions of a book DeSantis wrote in 2011, in which he defends slavery, criticizes arguments made by Thurgood Marshall, and falsely claims the Three-fifths Compromise benefited anti-slavery states. “If we’re going under the guise of parental rights, what about the parental rights of African Americans? What about the feelings of African-American children?” they said. “He only cares that he’s feeding his fan base.”
Dr. Michael Butler, a history professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, characterized the state’s arguments for banning the AP course as disingenuous, pointing to the DeSantis administration’s claims that writings by certain authors in the suggested readings section of the curriculum were proof that the course itself teaches Critical Race Theory to high-school students (it doesn’t).
“I think the impact [will be] that it is going to add to the increasing historical illiteracy that we’re seeing at the high school levels and beyond,” said Butler, who had a school district cancel one of his seminars on civil rights history in response to concerns over Critical Race Theory in January 2022. “We have had fake news. We are increasingly having fake history. Because classes that teach students, warts and all, are being slowly targeted for removal for political purposes.”
These bans, Butler argues, are doing the very indoctrination work they purport to be targeting in the name of “free” thought.
“They want to indoctrinate [students] by leaving out hard lessons that demonstrate freedom and equality in this country is a constant struggle,” he added. “The fact that the state is now trying to intimidate professors, administrators, and college staff from administering these high-impact, real-world programs has been chilling to say the least. Professors who never would have thought their course could end up on one of these lists are going back and changing out content, taking out readings that are classics in their fields but could possibly be distorted and used against them for political purposes. That undermines the spirit of higher education.”
In order to be in compliance with a “curriculum transparency” bill signed by Governor DeSantis in March 2022, teachers in Manatee County, Florida, were forced to cover up classroom library books and remove all school library books until the contents of said libraries could be reviewed and deemed appropriate by a librarian or “certified media specialist.” Teachers who are found to be in violation of the guidelines laid out in said bill could face criminal felony charges.
“Basically, it’s disrupted all of my lesson plans,” said a teacher in Manatee County, Florida, who covered up their classroom library. They requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Many of my lessons require significant planning to be able to meet the needs of all of our students. We often create materials to go with our books months in advance. With this directive, we are at a standstill while we wait to see when books will be approved.”
The Manatee County teacher explained that they and their colleagues have been informed that they can individually start vetting books through a program in the library to see if they are on the “approved” list, or they have to wait until a certified media specialist can check the books. If the database of state-approved texts doesn’t yet include a specific book, that book must remain locked up until it can be researched by the certified media specialist (or by the volunteers schools have been asking for to help cover the hours it takes to vet books).
The process of vetting books for curricular approval is lengthy and arduous, and other school districts in Florida are expected to follow in Manatee County’s footsteps with removing books prior to a vetting process. The Florida Department of Education issued a deadline of July 1, 2023, for all librarians and media specialists to complete training required for them to be certified to determine whether or not certain books meet the new state-mandated guidelines. Those guidelines include requiring parental approval for new books and prohibiting librarians from adding any books about culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, or social justice.
Florida ranked second among states in the US with the most book bans in the 2021-2022 school year, with 21 school districts banning 566 books. While the DeSantis administration wages a full-fledged political assault on the state’s curriculum, Florida is still facing significant teacher shortages and low teacher pay, and teacher unions are trying to fight off Republican efforts to weaken labor unions in general.
On Jan. 23, DeSantis announced legislation that would raise teacher pay while, simultaneously, implementing several restrictions aimed at teacher unions, including prohibiting union dues from being deducted directly from teacher paychecks and prohibiting the distribution of union materials in the workplace.
An estimated 100,000 students in Florida currently do not have a full-time teacher, as teacher vacancies have doubled in the state over the past two years, with nearly 5,300 vacancies in January 2023, and another 4,600 vacancies for teacher aides and other staff. The State of Florida has exceeded other states in the number of teacher vacancies, according to a working paper published in August 2022 by researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Teachers and staff are leaving at an alarming rate, in large part due to the policies implemented under Gov. DeSantis,” said Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association, which represents around 150,000 educators in Florida, in a statement on DeSantis’ recent initiatives. “We respect the voices of parents, teachers, school boards, administrators and students. All have a crucial role in providing our students with the best possible education, and students’ needs must be our focus. Our schools don’t need to go back to 1950; we need to move forward toward 2050. Florida’s students deserve strong public schools.”