Mon. Jul 15th, 2024
"Ron DeSantis" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

This story was originally published by The 19th

By Nadra Nittle, The 19th

"Ron DeSantis" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
“Ron DeSantis” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Advocates for the Black and LGBTQ+ communities are expressing outrage after the College Board on Wednesday released its official framework for an Advanced Placement course on African American Studies that makes subjects such as queer studies, intersectionality, reparations, affirmative action and Black Lives Matter optional — but not required — parts of the curriculum. They will not appear on the AP exam and are merely included on a list of possible prompts for a required research project.

In January, Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) officials rejected a pilot version of the course that included these topics. They sent a letter to the College Board stating that such subject matter “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” The state also objected to required reading from a number of queer and feminist scholars, including Roderick Ferguson, Kimberlé Crenshaw and the late bell hooks. The finalized AP African American Studies curriculum now omits their work from the reading list.

“The College Board has a responsibility to all students to ensure they receive a well-rounded education rooted in truth,” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary of Equality Florida, which advocates for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ Floridians, in a statement to The 19th. “This move to capitulate to the political will of [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis rather than take a stand for the iconic Black authors and important subjects that elevate this course is a slap in the face to those students.”

The College Board did not respond to repeated requests from The 19th for comment about the finalized curriculum. In a statement, David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a Black LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, called the College Board’s decision to remove the course content related to queer theory, intersectionality and related topics “an insult to the lived experiences of millions of Black Americans throughout our country today.” Johns said the course updates “undermine the integrity of the AP program” and serve Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “extremist anti-Black censorship demands.”

Over the past year, Florida has implemented laws such as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and the Parental Rights in Education Act (colloquially known as “Don’t Say Gay”) that limit what public schools can teach about race, gender, sexuality and social inequity. The legislation is part of a nationwide push by conservative politicians and parents to stop students from learning what they label critical race theory, an academic framework pioneered by legal scholars contending that racism stems from institutions and policies and not just personal prejudice. Critical race theory, scholars have emphasized, is not taught in grade school but in higher education, usually graduate school.

In addition to objecting to the inclusion of contemporary topics about race, such as Black Lives Matter, in the AP African American Studies course, DeSantis challenged its engagement of queer studies. “Who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory?” DeSantis asked January 23 during a Jacksonville press briefing with Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

Advocates for the Black and LGBTQ+ communities told The 19th that DeSantis’ remarks about queer studies are both inaccurate and a ploy to divide two marginalized communities. Moreover, they argue that continued curriculum restrictions are taking a toll on teachers in a state with a massive educator shortage and that they reflect the governor’s political aspirations rather than legitimate instructional concerns.

The governor’s comments about queer studies misrepresent both the Black and LGTBQ+ communities, Johns told The 19th. “This is a tactic used to drive a wedge between Black people — who are often assumed to be all cisgender and heterosexual, which has never been the case — and queer people, who are assumed to be White, which has also never been the case,” he said. “This is a political tactic designed to play partisan politics and drive wedges between communities that need to work together in order to overcome the threats to democracy and equity and equality.”

Johns is a former educator and the first executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans during President Barack Obama’s administration. He spoke last week at the “Stop the Black Attack” rally at the Florida capitol to protest the state’s decision to reject the pilot version of the AP African American Studies course. During the rally, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump announced plans to represent three high school students in a lawsuit if the state continues to block the AP African American Studies course. It’s unclear if FLDOE will implement the updated version of the course or if activists would consider that progress given that lessons on queer studies and intersectionality are now optional.

Before Florida rejected the pilot course, it had launched in 60 high schools across the country, with plans to introduce the class to hundreds of schools over the next school year. Alex Lanfranconi, FLDOE director of communications, said in a statement that the agency won’t allow “any organization to use an academic course as a gateway for indoctrination and a political agenda.” The FLDOE spokesman also noted that since AP courses are standardized nationwide, revisions to AP African American studies will result in students across the country having “access to an historically accurate, unbiased course.”

Wolf said that the DeSantis administration aims to intimidate institutions into “whitewashing” history and replacing effective curriculum with “propaganda.” The new version of AP African American Studies includes “Black conservatism” as a possible research project for students.

“The whole purpose of a college preparatory course like [AP African American Studies] is to help students understand the very real challenges, systemic and long term, that African-American folks have experienced in the United States,” Wolf said. “And as an intersectional person, as someone who is both Black and queer, I find it deeply disrespectful and offensive that anyone would suggest that my existence is lacking in educational value, that the experiences that people like me go through are not worth studying.”

Wolf said that the nation should be concerned about the governor’s agenda for Florida schools because DeSantis is influencing lawmakers in other states. After Florida banned the pilot AP African American Studies course, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education raised concerns about the content. In addition to DeSantis’ potential influence, the Arkansas inquiry stems from an executive order Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed after taking office last month “to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”

If DeSantis successfully runs for president, Wolf worries what his impact would be on education nationally.

“We’ve always warned that not only was DeSantis trying to chart a roadmap for states to essentially wage war on LGBTQ+ people, on Black and Brown folks, on immigrants, but also that he was setting the stage for what it would look like if he’s elected president,” Wolf said. “If you’re made uncomfortable by the things that DeSantis is doing to propagandize history in Florida, imagine what he’ll be willing to do when he is overseeing the Federal Department of Education.”

Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, said the state’s action sets a “scary” precedent.

“Overhauling Black history education curriculums to fit political agendas is damaging to our democracy,” she said. “It is also antithetical to free speech to attempt to silence the histories and stories of Black feminists, queer icons and activists for Black lives. All students, particularly students of color, benefit from an equitable education. Their futures in education should be molded by the diversity of ideas and schools of thought, not by DeSantis’ political whims.”

She encourages Floridians to take action not only by attending rallies such as “Stop the Black Attack” but also attending school board meetings, participating in the local PTA, contacting local legislators and lobbying at the state capitol to express their concerns about the wave of censorship, book banning and curriculum oversight legislation enacted in the state.

In August, the ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firm Ballard Spahr filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act in Florida’s public colleges and universities. In addition to prohibiting critical race theory, the legislation allows employees, parents and students to take legal action if CRT is taught to them. A preliminary injunction prevents the Stop W.O.K.E. Act from being enforced in higher education for now, and a trial related to the lawsuit is supposed to take place later this year, according to Azis.

“If freedom of speech means anything, it’s the ability to discuss and talk about and learn topics and issues that might be uncomfortable or might be different than what we’ve maybe been used to,” Azis said. “We don’t need the First Amendment to protect us from mundane speech. We need the First Amendment to protect us from those issues which perhaps have been stifled before. …Governor DeSantis wants to continue [stifling conversations] instead of allowing people to teach and learn about African American history.”

Fedrick C. Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and a former Miami-Dade County Public Schools teacher, said that politics interferes with education too often and that he’s disappointed by the omissions and changes to AP African American Studies. The AFT, he said, “will continue to fight to ensure students have access to a curriculum that reflects the full breadth and depth of Black life and the lives of others whose voices are too often pushed aside.”

Amid the AP African American Studies controversy, Florida is also drawing attention because of HB 1467, legislation enacted last year that requires FLDOE-trained specialists to preapprove books in school or classroom libraries to ensure they don’t contain what they consider to be pornographic or other sexual content. This has led Florida teachers to deny students access to classroom libraries in case the books included are not on the preapproved list. Teachers or other adults who “knowingly distribute egregious material” could face felony charges. The new legislation allows parents and community members to make complaints about reading materials, and often the books flagged for being inappropriate feature LGBTQ+ characters and/or those of color.

Ingram said efforts to ban books and to potentially “water down” the AP African American Studies course contribute to Florida’s teacher shortage of several thousand educators.

“We have teachers that are pushing for early retirement here in the state of Florida because they’re just sick of it,” Ingram said. “They’re sick of the inundation of testing. They’re sick of being told what to do, and when to do it and how to do it. They’re sick of being afraid of the politics that are happening in our classrooms.”

He added that educators who teach civics, social studies, or government classes are now afraid to give lessons on enslavement, segregation or the civil rights movement for fear that they will be held liable if students say they feel uncomfortable in class. This fear is why Florida struggles to find certified teachers to fill classrooms, he said. In 2022, DeSantis signed Florida Senate Bill 896 to permit military veterans without bachelor’s degrees to qualify for five-year temporary teaching certificates. A bachelor’s degree is typically required to teach nationally, but the teacher shortage that’s coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some states relaxing their standards for teachers. Ingram calls the fate of the AP African American Studies course “one more strike” against vulnerable children in Florida.

“Our history is good, bad and ugly, and if you’re going to teach U.S. history, let our teachers do what they have always done,” he said. “Teach the facts. Teach honest history and ensure that our students get a well-rounded education so that they can grow up and make their own decisions. That’s not indoctrination. That is giving young people an opportunity to become their best selves given the facts, given honest history, given the truth about the totality of who we are in this democracy.”