Where the lines are drawn: New state rule could threaten FL teachers’ academic freedom in history, civics

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Nowadays, 7th grade civics teacher Robin Porter is not sure where the lines are drawn when it comes to teaching the past and the present. What is forbidden and what isn’t?

Academic freedom has been a cornerstone in Florida classrooms, but a new rule imposed recently by the State Board of Education limits what materials and concepts can be used in discussing race in America — specifically the highly-targeted Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project that won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and Holocaust denial.

“It’s just very vague right now,” Porter told the Phoenix. “What are the limitations? They’re going to have to explain to us.”

The unclear boundaries have some teachers worried about accidentally crossing a line during instruction in areas of slavery and segregation. And educators could face the possibility of being stifled in their speech and limited in their actions as they prepare for the next school year in Florida.

Keep in mind that state law in Florida requires African-American history to be in the school curriculum.

June 19 is celebrated in the United States, highlighting the day when the last of enslaved African Americans were freed in 1865. Credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

And the federal Juneteenth holiday signed into law last week by President Joe Biden opens an even broader path to discuss America’s history of slavery in classrooms. (Juneteenth Day recognizes a significant time in history when the remaining enslaved African Americans in the United States were granted freedom in 1865.)

Presumably teachers should be able to instruct students on those topics, but Porter isn’t sure which discussions will be prohibited or not from the new rule.

“I think it’s open for interpretation, unfortunately,” said Porter, who teaches in the Miami-Dade school district. “So we’re not going to know until we actually cover something and there’s a complaint filed and then followed up on.”

The rule was approved June 10 after a heated session of public comments. A rowdy crowd had to be escorted from the State Board of Education meeting.

Bob Holladay is an adjunct history professor at Tallahassee Community College who has been following civics standards and education in Florida for some time. He told the Phoenix that he was “dubious” about the new rule.

“I think it is not a good thing to try to tell teachers that they can’t explore different avenues of historical interpretation,” Holladay said. “So much of the teaching of history is interpretive, and you can’t be afraid of interpretation.”

He also said that the state board is going to have a hard time upholding this rule “unless they’re going to have a monitor in every classroom.”

The rule provides examples “that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards.”

That would include Critical Race Theory, which is defined by the state’s rule as meaning racism not only is the product of prejudice, but it’s embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white people.

The Phoenix previously reported that Republicans in statehouses and Congress have launched into a fight against the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

Experts say it’s about acknowledging how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society, but the concept is being mischaracterized by conservatives, the Phoenix wrote. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers in the past few months have succeeded in pushing it to the top of state legislative agendas.

A slave auction at the south, from an original sketch by Theodore R. Davis. Published 1861. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In Florida, the state rule also bans the 1619 Project, a collection of essays from The New York Times, originally published in 2019. The project aims to consider what it would mean to regard the year 1619 as the start of American history, according to the Times’ website. That year is believed to be when the first African slaves were brought to the American colonies, thereby putting the “contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story” of the history of America.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, serves on the Commissioner of Education’s African American History Task Force, which works to ensure that school districts teach African American History.

Some of the current standards for African American history cover topics such as civil rights movements and slavery, but many districts have not made exemplary efforts in providing the curriculum, according to the task force.

Thompson told the Phoenix that banning Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project impedes the academic freedom of Florida teachers.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando. Credit: Colin Hackley

“Now we’re putting, into statute, into standards, that these things are not things that can be discussed in the classroom,” she told the Phoenix, “which intrudes on academic freedom and having teachers have the latitude to present this information in the best way for their students to comprehend it.”

Teacher contracts in some school districts ensure that educators can instruct the standards based on methods and materials they see fit.

Miami-Dade’s teacher contract, for example, says that: “Teachers shall be guaranteed freedom in classroom presentations and discussions and may introduce political, religious, or other controversial material whenever, in teachers’ professional judgment, it is appropriate to the instructional objectives and the age level of the students.”

But if a teacher in Miami-Dade decided to incorporate material from the 1619 Project or consider concepts from Critical Race Theory, it’s not clear how the promise of academic freedom will interact with the new Board of Education rule.

Robin Porter, the Miami-Dade civics teacher, worries that the new rule could stifle how some educators teach history and civics.

“It’s going to sterilize what they say,” Porter said.

And what if students get a teacher in trouble for saying something that goes against the new rule?

“If you were to have a student looking to get you in trouble and trying to bait you or take you on a conversation that goes down that route, I could see that being an issue,” Porter said.

History professor Holladay thinks that the state board is going to have a hard time upholding this rule “unless they’re going to have a monitor in every classroom.”

Even still, he thinks teachers will “find a way around” the rule, if need be.

“They’ll find a way. It may not be in a lecture, in a classroom, but it may be by showing a film. It might be by showing a documentary. It may be by having a particular inflection in their voice,” Holladay said. “Or subtly suggesting ‘Gee, you might want to go check out this website.'”