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Florida screens social studies textbooks for critical race theory

Books lined up on bookshelves in a library
Victoria Crosdale
WUSF Public Media
As the Florida Department of Education seeks proposals from textbook companies to provide social studies materials to schools, it is making clear that concepts such as critical race theory and social justice should not be included.

After rejecting math textbooks, state criteria now draw the line on what can be included in social studies materials.

As the Florida Department of Education seeks proposals from textbook companies to provide social studies materials to schools, it is making clear that concepts such as critical race theory and social justice should not be included.

The department is accepting bids from companies through June 10 to provide social studies books for a five-year period starting in 2023. The department posted to its website a 29-page document that lists criteria for what is expected to be included in the books — and what’s expected to be left out.

“Critical race theory, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, social and emotional learning, and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited,” part of the document said, citing state education standards.

The criteria emphasize a requirement that all materials align with the state’s “Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking” standards, which were adopted by the state in 2019. Those standards came after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to eliminate vestiges of politically unpopular “Common Core” standards.

Companies vying to provide social studies textbooks should “not attempt to indoctrinate or persuade students to a viewpoint inconsistent with Florida standards,” the guidelines say.

The State Board of Education last summer approved a rule that placed restrictions on the way history can be taught in public schools, a move DeSantis billed as a way to combat critical race theory.

Critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions, has been a target of DeSantis and other Republicans across the country. DeSantis last month signed a bill (HB 7) that will limit the way race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training. That law also serves as a basis for the state’s prohibition on critical race theory, often referred to as CRT.

“We’re working to make sure that the purpose of the school system is to educate our kids, not to indoctrinate our kids. And that’s what parents want to see. So, we are doing more than anybody on education across the board,” DeSantis said during an event Wednesday in Crestview.

The social studies textbook guidelines quote the state law and list what are described as “potential CRT components,” such as the concept that a person “bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

The textbook criteria also explicitly bar social studies materials that would teach the concept of social justice.

“Social justice is closely aligned to CRT (critical race theory),” the document said.

The department lists what it calls “potential social justice components” that will not be accepted in textbook bids.

“Seeking to eliminate undeserved disadvantages for selected groups,” one such example said.

“Undeserved disadvantages are from mere chance of birth and are factors beyond anyone’s control, thereby landing different groups in different conditions,” said another.

“Equality of treatment under the law is not a sufficient condition to achieve justice,” was a third potential social-justice component listed by the department.

Social emotional learning is another concept that would be barred from textbooks. That would include instruction incorporating “identity and identity identification concepts,” managing emotion, developing relationships and social awareness.

The state’s process for adopting social studies materials is slated to continue through April 2023. It is underway after the Department of Education drew national attention when it rejected proposed math textbooks for reasons such as the inclusion of critical race theory.

In an April 15 news release, the Department of Education reported 41% of math textbooks during an adoption process were rejected for reasons related to critical race theory, Common Core and social emotional learning.

“The highest number of books rejected were for grade levels K-5, where an alarming 71 percent were not appropriately aligned with Florida standards or included prohibited topics and unsolicited strategies,” the news release said.

On Tuesday, the department posted an update to social media that said 88% of the math textbook submissions have now been accepted, with 12% still being refused.

“Publishers are aligning their instructional materials to state standards,” the department said in a graphic that accompanied the post.

Free-speech organization PEN America issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the state about the math textbooks’ rejection.

Jeremy Young, senior manager of the organization’s Free Expression and Education program, said the rejection “demonstrates how broadly ‘educational gag orders’ can be wielded against a range” of educational materials.

“The rejections come in the midst of a multi-pronged effort to undermine faith in public schooling, and invoke terms that have become buzzwords for justifying censorship, but which remain vague and ill-defined. Math textbooks’ merit should be evaluated in terms of how effectively they help students learn mathematical concepts. Questions remain about the grounds for these rejections, and whether these removals are really about scoring political points,” Young said.

Democratic candidates vying to challenge DeSantis in the November election have criticized the governor over the textbook issue.

“DeSantis is banning math books, I want to expand Medicaid,” state Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried tweeted Wednesday.

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