A month into the new school year, Florida teachers, parents and students are already experiencing state changes to public school curriculum through new state civics standards and education bills.
To improve the civic literacy of Florida students, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved and allocated $106 million toward the Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative last July, though, the curriculum changes won’t fully implement until the 2023-2024 school year.
“Florida is leading the nation in civics education with almost 70% of our students achieving civics proficiency with African Americans, Hispanics and students from economically disadvantaged families leading those performance gains in our state,” Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said in a press conference this summer.
To familiarize teachers with the revised civics and government standardized curriculum in K-12 public schools and deepen their content knowledge, the Florida Department of Education hosted civics professional learning training in Davie, Jacksonville, Tampa, Pensacola and Fort Myers, which each lasted for about three days.
Justin Vogel, a 45-year-old teacher at Creekside High School, attended the Jacksonville training session in June.
The overall theme of the conference was politically biased, and some of the sessions overtly propagated a conservative political message, he said.
“What they did was sense some politicization in the classroom, and they came out with a political conference,” Vogel said.
Training attendees listened to three conservative keynote speakers, participated in cohort breakout sessions and received two free books, one by Henry Hazlitt and the other by Frédéric Bastiat, who are two of the most cited conservative men in academia, Vogel said.
He said he is worried about oversimplifying history and stifling critical thinking, as students are being told what to think and not how to think.
“There are many perspectives to look at when you do research and when you look at our history, so it’s not okay to just substitute your perspective with truth and ignore other perspectives,” Vogel said.
He had an issue with one of the presentation slides that he said appeared to convince attendees the founding fathers collectively tried to eliminate the institution of slavery. The intention of the conference was clear: The FDOE wants teachers to teach an academically dishonest view of history, he said.
“If you are teaching honestly, and you’re teaching multiple perspectives, then you might be driven out.”
He said teachers should not be a political weapon; they should be responsible for providing a fertile ground for thinking instead.
Vogel does not want the conference canceled, but rather to improve without bias.
Terra Gouge, a 51-year-old middle school science and American history teacher at St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, said the initiative attempts to shield students from negative American history.
“You can’t just wash out everything,” Gouge said. “When you standardize it to that level, then we don’t tend to learn from our past.”
While she thinks there is an appropriate way to present certain subjects, it should not be at the expense of academic honesty.
“It does a disservice to the students, because it doesn’t give them a broader worldview,” she said.
While Gouge teaches at a private school, she said she has seen a lot of public teachers leave education and look to second careers out of frustration.
“There’s a lot of concern about almost being fearful to even teach, because it’s almost like they’re being micromanaged,” she said.
Jordan Marlowe, a 45-year-old who primarily teaches English and history at Newberry High School and serves as the mayor of Newberry, mirrored Gouge’s thoughts.
“The one aspect of my profession that I have under control is developing my curriculum,” he said.
If the state’s goal is to teach one perspective as perfect and the others as being doomed to fail, then that is not education, he said. “That’s more indoctrination.”
Marlowe said the state should focus resources on improving student behavior and decreasing class size, which he said pose barriers to providing individualized instruction.
Stephana Ferrell, a 40-year-old parent of two elementary school children and a co-founder of Florida Freedom to Read Project, disagrees with the training and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and “Stop WOKE Act,” which both went into effect July 1.
Public schools foster diversity of thought and critical thinking skills, which the recently passed education bills prevent, she said.
“Indoctrination can only happen when information is withheld to support a chosen narrative,” she said. “When I look at that civics training, I look at what’s left out.”
Through her organization, she has helped track over 600 attempts to remove books in the last school year.
She said HB 1467 requires media specialists to undergo additional training — which won’t be available until January 2023 — to properly purchase and curate book collections in school libraries. Until then, students will not see new books stocked on school library shelves. The FDOE will also comprise and release a statewide list of challenged or removed books in each school district — information the bill requires each school district to provide — to adjust school library collections of books.
“They are absolutely just hindering my children and censoring my children,” she said. “This is not what I want in education, and it’s really sad.”