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.
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