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DeSantis says Florida requires African American history. Advocates say the state is failing that mandate

<i>Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Getty Images</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

By Steve Contorno, CNN

Facing accusations of whitewashing history after his administration blocked a new Black studies course for high-achieving high schoolers, Gov. Ron DeSantis has countered that Florida students already must learn about the triumphs and plight of African Americans.

“The state of Florida education standards not only don’t prevent, but they require teaching Black history,” DeSantis said last week. “All the important things, that’s part of our core curriculum.”

Indeed, Florida has required its schools to teach African American history since 1994, long before the recent push in many states to move toward a more complete telling of the country’s story. The stated goal at the time was to introduce the Black experience to a generation of young people. That included DeSantis himself, then a student in Florida’s public school system when the mandate became law.

But nearly three decades later, advocates say many Florida schools are failing to teach that history. Only 11 of the state’s 67 county school districts meet all of the benchmarks for teaching Black history set by the African American History Task Force, a state board created to help school districts abide by the mandate. Many schools only cover the topic during Black History Month in February, said Bernadette Kelley-Brown, the principal investigator for the task force.

“The idea that every Florida student learns African American history, it’s not reality,” Kelley-Brown said. “Some districts don’t even realize it’s required instruction.”

The persistent focus in Florida on instruction of African American topics comes as DeSantis has partially built his Republican stardom by targeting public schools for signs of progressive ideologies. His administration has forced K-12 schools to comb their textbooks and curriculum for any evidence of Critical Race Theory or related topics and he championed a new law that puts guardrails on lessons about racism and oppression. Both measures were cited in the state’s decision last month to block a new Advanced Placement class on African American Studies from Florida high schools. (On Wednesday, the College Board, which oversees AP courses and exams, released an updated framework of African American Studies class that did not include many of the authors and topics DeSantis had objected to. His administration said it was reviewing the changes to see if the course now complies with state law.)

Black Democratic lawmakers say the state Department of Education under DeSantis has shown far more zeal in enforcing these new restrictions on how race can be taught in schools than the state, in almost 30 years, has ever demonstrated toward ensuring that Black history is taught at all.

“If we say that the speed limit is 70 and someone goes 80, the Highway Patrol is there with some consequences,” state Sen. Geraldine Thompson said at a recent press conference. “But there have been no consequences for not teaching African American history.”

The governor’s office and the Florida Department of Education did not respond when asked about the state’s efforts to enforce the mandate to teach Black history. But DeSantis recently elaborated on how he expects the subject to be taught.

“It’s just cut and dried history,” DeSantis said. “You learn all the basics. You learn about the great figures, and you know, I view it as American history. I don’t view it as separate history.”

A mandate with no money

For a state that had to be dragged to desegregate all of its schools well into the 1970s, the move to require African American history in Florida classrooms was notably unceremonious. Lawmakers unanimously approved the mandate in 1994 with little debate. Few newspapers covered then-Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles signing the bill into law.

After it passed, the state created the African American History Task Force to help school districts with this new directive and to come up with a strategy for implementation. But neither the law nor the Florida Department of Education set a deadline for districts to comply.

Former state Rep. Rudolph Bradley, the Black lawmaker who sponsored the bill to require African American history back then, now says there was a major flaw in the legislation that kept it from accomplishing what he set out to achieve: Lawmakers didn’t set aside any money for school districts to update their textbooks, buy new instructional materials or train teachers.

“The mistake on my part, being a freshman, I didn’t understand the importance of attaching appropriations,” Bradley told CNN in a recent interview. “I didn’t understand what an unfunded mandate was and how difficult that would make it for school districts to incorporate it.”

Even districts that had sought to comply with the law faced hurdles. Among those early adopters in 1994 was Pinellas County, where efforts to incorporate African American history into their lessons were underway prior to the law’s passage — and where a teenage DeSantis was entering sophomore year of high school that fall.

At Dunedin High School, a predominantly White school within walking distance of Florida’s gulf shores, DeSantis should have been among the first wave of students to be exposed to this more complete telling of history. The school already offered African American history as an elective and the district had tapped the teacher of that class, Randy Lightfoot, to guide Pinellas schools into compliance with the new law. (Lightfoot said DeSantis was not a student in his African American history class.)

Lightfoot and his team met after school for three hours a day, four times a week for months to forge a plan to incorporate Black history, culture and figures into every grade level, he told CNN in a recent interview. They printed a blueprint called “African American Connections.”

The accurate teaching of African American studies, the document said, “explains the causes of racial division in society, including prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination” and the “systematic oppression perspective of Africans and African-Americans and their resistance to that oppression.”

The state heralded Lightfoot’s efforts as a model for adhering to the new law, according to news accounts from the time. The Florida education commissioner liked it so much he handed a copy to every school district, Lightfoot said. DeSantis more recently has called the idea of systemic racism “a bunch of horse manure.”

By 1996, Lightfoot was warning that his efforts were being stymied by lack of resources. Lightfoot struggled to convince the Pinellas school board to acquire textbooks that included the new lessons on Black history, according to the St. Petersburg Times, which also noted that the district cut his staff.

The attempts to expand the curriculum to teach African American history also came during a period of racial strife in Pinellas County. In 1996, riots broke out in St. Petersburg, the city 20 minutes south of DeSantis’ suburban home, after the police killed an unarmed Black teenager during a traffic stop, and again when the officers involved were cleared of charges. Meanwhile, graduation rates for Black male students remained stubbornly low in Pinellas, the Times reported, and the county school board had broached the controversial idea of curbing forced busing to desegregate the public schools, leading to a period of distrust between the board and Black residents.

By the time DeSantis graduated in 1997 — having earned recognition as a decorated Advanced Placement history student, according to his senior yearbook — getting African American history in Pinellas schools was still a work in progress, Lightfoot said.

Statewide, only a handful of schools had earned “exemplary” status from the African American History Task Force by the end of that decade, meaning they had reached benchmarks for compliance. “Exemplary” school districts must demonstrate their curriculum included African American topics beyond Black History Month, training for teachers in the subject, involvement of parents in the learning and collaboration with a local university for support. In 1999, a bill that would have required public school textbooks to include African American history went nowhere in the state legislature.

Carlton Owens, a Black classmate of DeSantis’ at Dunedin High, said he only saw people like himself reflected in the curriculum during Black History Month or lessons around slavery and the Civil Rights movement.

“There’s so much more history that’s inspiring that is interwoven in the American story as a whole,” Owens, now a lawyer and small business owner, said. “And that wasn’t highlighted then, and that needs to be happening now.”

The state “put the material out there for districts,” said Lightfoot, now a history professor at St. Petersburg College. “But they didn’t put the kind of money in to check and make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

“We were trying to fill in the gaps and the holes in history,” he added. “At the same time, we had Black male students who we thought we could help improve their grades if they saw their stories in history and science and literature. Where it worked, we had pretty good success with it. But we had the support of state leaders to do it. It was a different climate then.”

Discrepancies in teaching African American history

In a 2019 press release, the Florida Department of Education announced it would require districts for the first time to report how they were teaching required subjects including “Holocaust education, African American history, Hispanic heritage, women’s history, civics and more.”

A CNN review of those reports for the 2021-22 school year found wide discrepancies in how districts lesson-plan around the subject of African American history. Some districts provide lengthy plans for weaving the African American experience into social studies from kindergarten through high school graduation; others suggest exploration comes primarily during Black History month. More than a dozen submissions largely parroted the requirements listed in state law without including any details of the instruction.

Leon County, declared an exemplary school district by the African American History Task Force, included details like its lessons on African American scientists, songwriters and artists during grades K-5. Dixie County, near the Florida Panhandle, submitted 1,600 words on how it teaches African American history to high schoolers. Madison County, a school district near the Florida-Georgia border, simply wrote: “Courses are taught on a daily basis by a Florida certified teacher. The district also stresses Black History Month with daily mini-lessons for all grade levels.”

The Florida Association of School Superintendents did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats and advocates contend the state has done little with this information. They also say the administration has not yet indicated how it will ensure schools are complying with a new state law signed by DeSantis that requires annual instruction of the 1920 Ocoee massacre, when dozens of Black Floridians were murdered in a horrific Election Day racial cleansing.

Democratic lawmakers say they intend to introduce legislation that would require the state to enforce whether school districts are teaching African American history as the law intends, though its supporters acknowledge any bill is unlikely to gain traction in a statehouse controlled by Republicans.

“It won’t go anywhere,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a member of the legislature’s Black caucus. “But it’ll be a helluva message that we’re getting behind true and accurate Black history being taught in the state of Florida.”

Early in his first term, there was some hope from the state’s Black community that DeSantis would forge a different path than some of his Republican predecessors. In one of his first acts as governor, DeSantis voted to pardon the Groveland Four — two Black men who were lynched and two who received lengthy sentences for allegedly raping a White woman in 1949 — widely considered one of the darkest episodes in Florida’s violent past. Former Gov. Rick Scott, who served two terms prior to DeSantis taking office, had refused to pardon the four men despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

But DeSantis’ posture changed following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. DeSantis responded to the national unrest by mobilizing the state’s national guard and pushing through what he called an “anti-riot” law that included harsh new penalties for protesters if a demonstration turns violent.

DeSantis then turned his attention to schools. In June 2021, he urged the state Board of Education to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory, an academic framework based around the idea that systemic racism is embedded in many American institutions and society. His administration then rejected math textbooks on the grounds that they included Critical Race Theory and other forbidden topics. Last year, lawmakers approved one of DeSantis’ top legislative priorities: the so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” which said schools cannot teach that anyone is inherently racist or responsible for past atrocities because of their skin color. The bill, which DeSantis signed into law, also said schools could teach that oppression of races has existed throughout US history but not persuade students to a particular point of view.

The controversies around these actions have catapulted DeSantis into the national conversation on teaching race and helped fuel his rise as a potential presidential contender. Throughout these episodes, DeSantis has often maintained that African American history is built into Florida’s education framework.

“Florida statutes require teaching all of American history including slavery, civil rights, segregation,” DeSantis contended during his debate against his Democratic opponent last year, Charlie Crist. “It’s important that that’s taught. But what I think is not good is to scapegoat students based on skin color.”

Reginald Ellis, a professor of History and African-American Studies at Florida A&M University, said if students were adequately learning Black history, he would see it first hand in his classroom.

“What I find, even at a historically Black college, the vast majority of students have not really been exposed to much African American history and experience,” Ellis said. “It is a law on the books. There is a task force. But, for the most part, it clearly isn’t a curriculum that is being enforced. School districts effectively have the option to opt-in or opt-out.”

Bradley, the original bill sponsor, said the law’s shortcomings fall on those who have held power in Tallahassee and in school districts for the past three decades, and not DeSantis. Bradley, who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican later in his political career, said he was supportive of DeSantis’ education agenda and accused activists of using schools to “drive a wedge between Blacks and Whites.”

“The law is still a work in progress, but if we want to use it as a tool to divide then that is a total violation of the spirit of the law,” Bradley said. “When I passed that bill, it was designed to bring people together, not divide.”

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