Florida’s New Black History Standards Have Drawn Backlash. Who Wrote Them?

When Florida set out to revamp its standards for teaching Black history this spring, a natural place to turn would have been the state’s African American History Task Force.

The volunteer task force — a group of Black educators, Democratic politicians and community leaders, appointed by the commissioner of education — has helped shape African American history instruction in Florida for more than two decades. The group provides an annual training session for teachers and awards “exemplary” status to school districts that meet criteria it sets.

But in updating educational standards to comply with a new law that limits how racism and other aspects of history can be taught, signed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, state officials largely bypassed the task force.

“You would think they would have involved us,” said Samuel L. Wright Sr., who founded the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival and was the task force’s vice chairman until last month.

Dr. Wright and six other members who were serving this spring while the standards were being written said they had not been consulted. The standards have drawn backlash for saying that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Another contested section said that students should learn about race massacres of the 20th century, including violence perpetrated not just against but also “by African Americans.”

“I would not be a party to standards of African American history that homogenizes our history,” said Brenda Walker, a task force member and an education professor at the University of South Florida whose research has focused on Black students and recruiting male teachers of color.

Few details have been publicly released about how the standards, which lay out concepts that students are expected to learn, were created. Even Mr. DeSantis, who has often embraced his role as a warrior against “woke” ideology in schools, sought to distance himself amid a faltering 2024 presidential campaign.

“I wasn’t involved in it,” he told reporters last week.

To craft the 216-page document, his Department of Education created a 13-member work group, which drafted the standards from February to May.

The work group members, whose names the state has not released in full, included Frances Presley Rice, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a staunch conservative who has led the National Black Republican Association; William Allen, a professor emeritus at Michigan State who served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights under Ronald Reagan; and teachers and school district officials from around the state.

Three members of the group were nominated by the African American History Task Force, as representatives from its exemplary school districts.

In the past, the task force had a “robust agenda,” said U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, who holds an emeritus role on it. Under Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who led the state from 1999 to 2007, “we were the ones who dictated to the Department of Education on what should happen with African American history,” Ms. Wilson said in an interview.

But in a sign of the task force’s diminished role under Mr. DeSantis, several of its members said they did not know who had been selected for the work group until this week, after the new standards were announced.

It is unclear how much agreement there was among the members of the group that wrote the standards.

The Department of Education, which did not respond to questions about the process, previously released a statement from Dr. Allen and Dr. Presley Rice defending the description of enslaved people using skills for their “personal benefit” as an accurate portrayal of the resiliency shown by enslaved individuals, some of whom excelled in trades like shoemaking and fishing.

One school district representative in the work group appeared to express dissent on social media, re-sharing a post that called that statement from Dr. Allen and Dr. Presley Rice “gaslighting.”

The group, which was racially and politically diverse, engaged in vigorous debate during a series of meetings in Tallahassee and online. But the group — which originally believed it would have a year to work — also faced a shortened timeline, which resulted in “some mistakes” and unpolished phrasing, such as the line that said enslaved people had used skills to their personal benefit, according to one member who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Dr. Allen, whose great-grandfather was enslaved, told ABC News that the standards did not say that slavery itself was beneficial, but meant to portray enslaved people as “resourceful, resilient and adaptive” people.

“It’s only those who don’t take the time to read it who will misstate it,” he said.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Mr. DeSantis posted a link on Twitter to the College Board’s much-debated advanced-placement course in African American studies, which makes a similar point but with different language, saying that enslaved people, once free, used their trade skills to provide for themselves and others.

Florida has required the teaching of African American history since 1994.

Manny Diaz Jr., the Florida education commissioner, with Gov. Ron DeSantis in May 2023. Mr. Diaz appointed six DeSantis allies to the African American History Task Force.Credit…Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

But under Mr. DeSantis, who has helped lead a conservative takeover of several school boards, and whose administration has fought the College Board and textbook publishers over what it sees as liberal indoctrination on the topic of race in schools, education — the teaching of history especially — has become increasingly politicized.

That has played out on the African American History Task Force, where members say empty positions went unfilled for years until Mr. DeSantis’s commissioner of education, Manny Diaz Jr., appointed six Black conservatives in May.

The new appointees included Dr. Presley Rice, who had been a member of the work group that wrote the standards, and several allies of Mr. DeSantis, such as State Representative Berny Jacques; Torey Alston, who was appointed by the governor to the Broward County school board; and John Davis, a DeSantis appointee who leads the Florida Lottery.

The new chairman of the task force is Glen Gilzean, whom Mr. DeSantis has appointed to several groups and committees and who was recently chosen by a DeSantis-backed board to run Walt Disney World’s oversight district, amid the governor’s ongoing feud with Disney. Mr. Gilzean, a Republican, previously led the Central Florida Urban League and has publicly supported some of the governor’s education policies.

It’s unclear what role, if any, the new members of the task force had in the standards. They were appointed in May, after the work group had finished the bulk of its meetings.

Kimberly Daniels, a conservative Democrat in the Florida House who is among the new appointees, said she had not been consulted.

In one of their first acts, the new task force members postponed the group’s annual summer training for teachers, which has in the past included sessions on Florida’s own history with racial violence.

The training, which will now include the new standards, has been rescheduled for next month.

One longtime task force member is not on the list: Dr. Wright, the vice chair, resigned last month, in protest of what he saw as a political coup.

“The task force was not aiming at making white kids or nobody feel like people were responsible for slavery,” he said. “The intent of the task force was to ensure that African American and other kids realized that African American people made contributions to America and to this world.”

Kitty Bennett and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research

Back to top button