Teaching certain parts of history in Florida may be subject to a lawsuit next school year. Teachers in Florida face another set of legislation that will censor their work in the classroom. The Individual Freedom Act, which recently received approval from the state Senate Education Committee, will make it illegal for public school students to feel “discomfort” when they are taught about race. The legislation is the latest in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda against teaching Critical Race Theory, systemic racism in the U.S., and an accurate history curriculum. If the bills continue to progress and are passed by the state House and Senate, it will open schools up to lawsuits. In response to the latest legislation, teachers of color say they are concerned for the future of education in Florida and feel directly targeted.
“This law is very disturbing,” said Ms. B, a math teacher at a predominantly Haitian American public school in Miami, who always integrates different cultural practices to her math lessons.
Florida is one of 14 states in the nation that has already banned teaching the country’s history of racism from the classroom in the past year. Over a dozen other states face potential bans too. Conservative politicians have created a racist bogeyman out of the analytical framework known as Critical Race Theory (CRT), and have been relentlessly pushing against it since the 2020 police killing of George Floyd prompted a racial reckoning across American institutions. Conservatives and critics of the theory have willfully misrepresented CRT as a tool to villainize individual white people for being oppressors. In reality, CRT is a theoretical framework that analyzes the way race is produced and racial inequality is facilitated through U.S. institutions, laws and regulations. Florida’s latest bill will undo any progress that was done to confront the reality of the country’s foundation and development.
“I don’t know who they’re trying to fool, maybe the history books, because when we look back on this decades from now, this is going to be another period of time that Americans will yet again be ashamed of,” Ms. B said.
DeSantis already proposed the “Stop WOKE Act” in December 2021, which codifies the Florida Department of Education’s prohibition on teaching about the country’s implicit racism, and prohibits school districts, colleges, and universities from hiring “woke” consultants, or anyone who provides training on how to teach racism in the classroom. The Individual Freedom Act goes a step further and actually states that learning about race should not make anyone feel discomfort and renders it unlawful.
Additionally, the Individual Freedom Act states that it is unlawful to teach through trainings or in the classroom that, “An individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” Opponents of the bill say it would censor honest conversations about race and gender in the classroom and put teachers of color at risk of stepping on the toes of “white fragility.”
“In an ideal world all the Black people unite and file a lawsuit against them because they’ve been making us feel uncomfortable for years,” Ms. B said. “Every other person except white people has been uncomfortable when learning about history.”
Ms. B has been teaching math at her alma mater for eight years. As a student, she recalls celebrating Haitian Flag Day at her high school as a school-wide event. Now, as a teacher, even though their principal is Haitian, she says the school has no cultural pride. She believes it speaks to internalizing systemic racism.
“If my principal matriculated through an education system that taught him to value his culture, he would then empower the students to value their culture as well,” Ms. B said.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which has a 19.5% Black and 72.2% Latinx student body, is the largest urban district in the state of Florida. Ms. B said she loves teaching, but if Florida continues to threaten punitive action against teaching history, she would move and teach in another state.
“Just the idea of me telling my kids, ‘I can’t teach you about your ancestors. I can’t teach you about anything other than enslavement.’ What is that saying?” Ms. B said. “It’s so dehumanizing. It’s just so disgusting, honestly. Anytime there’s a reference to people of color in history books, it’s always negative.”
The bill states that, “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” and that “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”
As conservative states continue to pass laws that penalize teaching the truth about racism, teachers like Ms. B are concerned the education system is only valuing white culture and assimilation. But, many critics of anti-CRT legislation point out that banning the truth in history classrooms is a moot objective in the digital age, when any piece of information is available online.
“That strategy used to work in the pre-Internet era, but not in the TikTok generation,” Ms. B said. “These kids are all about authenticity.”
Even with the availability of information online, the amount of misinformation can still make it difficult for students to learn—and it’s a burden that still shouldn’t fall on students anyway, some teachers say. Ms. B says no one at her school has been legally penalized for teaching about racism, but she says teachers may see it in their yearly scores or evaluations, which are conducted by administrators and help determine their yearly salary.
“They will find different, covert ways to punish you,” Ms. B said. “DeSantis has given the administration even more ammunition to persecute teachers.”
Consequences of DeSantis’ anti-CRT agenda are already being felt across the state. Last month, the School District of Osceola County canceled a civil rights history seminar for teaching, scared that it may be construed as “CRT,” even though the lecture had nothing to do with CRT and focused on the civil rights movement. In an email, the school board said the topic would “raise red flags with the committee.”
Lare Allen, president of the Osceola County Education Association who has been teaching for 30 years, says teachers are scared. According to Allen, parents have been repeatedly attending school board meetings every month complaining about supposed CRT teaching in their children’s classrooms.
“If I were teaching right now, I would feel very unsafe, like I had to walk on eggshells every day,” Allen said. “This law is going to set it up where it makes witch hunting a lot easier and justified.”
Allen hopes teachers will be treated like professionals and allowed to teach the facts without fear of retaliation. The Individual Freedom Act is expected to head to the Senate Rules Committee next week. If passed, it will become effective July 1.