Florida’s New Civics Curriculum

By Suzan Harden, Florida AAUW Public Policy Committee

One of the issues in Florida K-12 Education prompting much discussion is the development of the new Civics curriculum set to be implemented in the 2023-2024 school year. In July 2021 Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative and the appropriation of $106 million to implement it. Highlights include:

$65 million to create and implement the Florida Civics Seal of Excellence, a new professional licensure endorsement for civics teachers. This includes a $3,000 bonus for educators who complete training and earn the endorsement.

$16.5 million for training, professional development and in-class support for educators and principals who want to improve civics education. A network of regional coaches will provide support.

$17.5 million is allocated to fortify the Civics curriculum and expedite the implementation of Florida’s B.E.S.T. standards.

$6.5 million for a career pathway program to develop partnerships between secondary schools and government institutions to allow students to explore careers in government and public administration.

The curriculum emphasizes the study of the nation’s founding documents and the identification of qualities embodying patriotism. According to the new curriculum, patriotism is respect for the military, elected officials, civic leaders, public servants, and all those who have defended the blessings of liberty in pursuit of the common good, even at personal risk. The focus is on American exceptionalism and the role of religion in the foundation of our country. 

Civics instruction begins in kindergarten, with students identifying patriotic holidays, reciting the pledge, identifying patriotic symbols such as the flag, the bald eagle, and the president, identifying authority figures in their lives, developing understanding of the need for rules and laws, and learning to work together. Each grade level has specific benchmarks students are expected to meet. Students are required to take a Civics class in middle school and to take the Civics End of Course Exam. A semester of American Government is required for high school graduation, and students must take the Florida Civic Literacy Exam. An excellent resource for information about the curriculum is www.cpalms.org.

Training for the new curriculum began this summer. A review of articles describing reactions of teachers in Miami, Jacksonville, and Tampa to the new curriculum and training identified several concerns: 1) Teachers’ initial impressions were that the curriculum is imbued with Christian and conservative tenets. In answer to their questions, they were told it is a misconception that Founders desired strict separation of church and state. The Founders’ words in the First Amendment denying establishment of religion were intended only to protect freedom of worship. 2) Teachers were told they must teach the negative aspects of U.S. history so no child will “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” A slide in the presentation shows drawings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with dialogue bubbles indicating their goal would be to eventually eliminate slavery. The training informs teachers that although Founders owned slaves, Founders “did not defend the institution.” With the ban on discussion of Critical Race Theory in public schools (CRT was never taught at the K-12 level), teachers are justifiably concerned about the line they are walking in dealing with the sensitive issues of racism and slavery. 3) Teachers believe the new curriculum pushes a judicial theory heavily favored by legal conservatives requiring the Constitution to be interpreted as the Founders intended it, not as a living, evolving document. 

In reviewing articles about curriculum development in the state of Florida, it becomes apparent that Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan, is closely involved with Florida curriculum design, including the Civics curriculum. Hillsdale’s mission includes the statement, “As a nonsectarian Christian institution, Hillsdale College maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.” The Hillsdale president, Larry Arnn, was on former President Trump’s short list of candidates for Secretary of Education. He headed Mr. Trump’s 1776 Commission and spearheaded the development of the 1776 Curriculum to counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Earlier this year Mr. Arnn sat on a stage with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to discuss opening a series of charter schools in Tennessee using the 1776 Curriculum. Shortly after, a Tennessee TV station released a secretly recorded conversation in which Arnn said, “Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” There was an immediate backlash by both Republicans and Democrats, and the applications for the charter schools were denied by the school districts involved. Hillsdale supports the development of charter schools through its Barney Charter School Initiative. There are several locations in Florida, and Larry Arnn is hoping to open more. 

In keeping with DeSantis’s goal of promoting the benefits of democracy, Florida joins Alabama, Texas, Utah and Virginia in designating November 7 as Victims of Communism Memorial Day. Eight other states—Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—have also proposed such a declaration. That day was chosen because it marks the day in Russian history that the Bolsheviks seized power and established the first Communist country. The purpose is to honor those who have suffered under Communist regimes and to help American youth develop an understanding of communism and an appreciation for democracy. All public schools must honor the day. All Florida high school American Government classes must include a 45-minute comparative discussion on democracy and communism on that day.

For additional reading:

Equity in Education: Be Vigilant

If you are an AAUW member, you probably proclaim that you are interested in education. Perhaps you give money for scholarships. Now is the time for you to take an interest in the actual content of education in the context of AAUW’s policy of equity in education. Governor DeSantis approved new civics education standards that exclude discussion of systemic racism and promote, in my opinion, what we used to call “jingoism”. Equity calls for the stories of previously excluded people to be taught.

The Florida Department of Education’s fear of dangerous ideas goes way back. When I was in high school in Gainesville Florida, the state decided that perhaps we should learn something about communism, a very dangerous idea that we might fall victim to if it were taught indiscriminately. So they produced a movie series that seniors were allowed to watch in the auditorium, called “Americanism versus Communism”. Now might be a good time for the state to produce another video series, “Americanism versus Critical Race Theory”. After all, who knows what kids might pick up on the outside that might suggest to them that the promises of liberty and justice for all really did not apply to everyone?

Instead, they have produced a new civics education curriculum that is quite rigorous in its promotion of an absolutely laudatory understanding of all American institutions and practices. The student is to understand the advantages of limited government, capitalism, and the influence of Hebraic and Christian religion on America’s founding ideas.  The words “slave” and “slavery” are not found in the standards. The word “native” is found only in a context that praises the government for granting rights to Native Americans, among other “groups”. Any fault in granting civil rights to these groups was remedied: “Explain how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time.” Much attention is paid to those foundational documents, but no mention is made of the Constitution’s compromises that perpetuated slavery and denied rights to women.

In my graduate work I learned the maxim that it is the victors who write the histories. We cannot allow the political victors to write, for their own benefit, the history that students will learn in school. We have scholars and journalists nowadays who are willing to dig and learn the histories of people who were left out of official accounts. Florida Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-8) collected a list of ten “pieces of factual Florida history” that have been left out: slavery and the role of enslaved laborers in building our monuments, systematic racism (Jim Crow, redlining, mortgage discrimination), two destroyed towns, and examples of lynchings and vigilante retaliation. One example of the latter, the Jacksonville Ax Handle Saturday “riot,” has recently been the subject of reexamination and apology from the Times-Union for its biased coverage of the events in 1960.

I urge all AAUW members and others who are concerned with equity in education to be alert to potential negative impacts from the new standards. Watch particularly for disciplinary actions taken against teachers who may defy the restrictive standards and try to teach what actually happened: to tell the stories that were suppressed or deceptively reported. And support teachers who promote actual critical thinking rather than acceptance of dogma.

Working for Title IX

Linda Barker in Vero Beach would like to know what other branches are doing to support Title IX. She wrote to national and received the following reply from Olivia Guerrieri (who gave me permission to post):

Meeting with your district’s Title IX Coordinators is a great first step! Successful advocacy is all about relationships, and having a meeting is the first step to starting one. We hope you’ll continue to develop relationships with the Title IX Coordinators you’ve spoken to, and if there are any you haven’t reached out to yet, you can find their information here. One next step you can take in building these relationships is to co-author a letter to the editor about the importance of upholding Title IX protections. You can read more about this idea here, and view a customizable sample letter here. When meeting with Title IX Coordinators, we also encourage you to ask what support your local Title IX Coordinator needs from the community. Finding out what would be most helpful for them will help you use your advocacy power most effectively.
 
Regarding principals serving as Title IX Coordinators, the Department of Education’s 2015 Dear Colleague Letter says, “Title IX does not categorically exclude particular employees from serving as Title IX coordinators. However, when designating a Title IX coordinator, a recipient should be careful to avoid designating an employee whose other job responsibilities may create a conflict of interest. For example, designating a disciplinary board member, general counsel, dean of students, superintendent, principal, or athletics director as the Title IX coordinator may pose a conflict of interest.” This letter is part of the resources you helpfully put in the hands of your local school district. You might consider following up to ask if they have any questions about the information.
 
There are a few other next steps your branch may want to consider moving forward. Many branches have held great community events or forums where they’ve asked local Title IX Coordinators, from all levels of education, to speak about their roles—another way to develop those relationships, while also sharing information with others in your community. One possible discussion topic would be the Civil Rights Data Collection, in which 67 percent of local education agencies reported zero allegations of sexual harassment or bullying during the 2013–14 school year—obviously not an accurate reflection. 
 
AAUW branches have also worked to advance legislation in their states that would address the issue of campus sexual assault. 
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