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Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Florida education reform initiatives limit African American studies, DEI funds

K-12 schools, universities face impacts of old and new legislation

An email arrived in Kenneth Nunn’s inbox early February. Confusion creased his brow as he scanned the first line, discovering the great distance it had traveled to reach him, a newly retired UF professor of law. 

The message was innocent, no more than 200 words, and it eagerly awaited an answer. Its purpose wasn’t what bewildered Nunn. He had seen his share of curious students. 

Instead, it was where it arrived from. 

“Dear Kenneth,” the message read. “We’re two 16-year old guys from Denmark, diving into a school project on racism in the USA.” 

The boys posed three questions on the topic, and Nunn planned his response. 

He hadn’t the slightest idea of how they discovered him or his area of expertise during his time as a professor. However, he did have a burning question.

“What kind of world do we live in where students who are [at a high school level] in a Scandinavian country can ask questions about the racial history and conditions in the United States but that students who live in the state of Florida in the midst of those conditions cannot?” he said. 

Nunn, a specialist in topics including affirmative action, African studies, civil rights and race relations, still doesn’t have an answer. 

Various education reform bills have altered curriculum and cut funding to certain programs in public K-12 schools and universities since the beginning of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. The initiatives have targeted a wide variety of subject matter including diversity, equity and inclusion programs as well as all critical theory, a blanket term that encompasses the idea of critical race theory. 

The passage of new legislation, both in support and opposition of past initiatives, faces the state legislature in 2024. 

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes critical theory as the examination of social movements and systems of oppression. However, Nunn said, no one can truly define critical race theory. 

“...They mean any information or teaching about Black people, Black lives, Black politics or Black history,” he said. “So, anything that would make a conservative person who believes in white superiority uncomfortable, those things can’t be taught.” 

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Signed into law in 2023, House Bill 999 enacted sweeping changes to Florida higher education. It prohibits state or federal grant money from being allocated to DEI programs or other university organizations promoting activism, as well as those that may pose discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, gender or religion. The measure also prohibits degree programs and course curriculum that include critical race theory. 

Lawmakers in support of legislation limiting what can be taught about marginalized groups are creating an environment where racial violence can once again be directed to African American communities, among others, Nunn said.

“You can see the parallels between what is happening in Florida today and what happened in Florida in the years following reconstruction when there was a resurgence of white power and people were trying to oppress African Americans and keep them from exercising the rights that were won,” he said. 

Following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement staged demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. 

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a data collection and crisis mapping initiative, reported that approximately 94% of all pro-BLM protests were peaceful. However, authorities were three times more likely to intervene in those demonstrations than others.

The “Back the Blue” movement, a conservative-led initiative supporting the police, was formed in response. While over 9% of BLM protests were met with law enforcement intervention, only 2% of pro-police demonstrations were faced with similar treatment, according to ACLED. 

“Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” Nunn said. 

HB 999 also eliminates diversity statements in not only student admissions but also faculty hires. 

A ‘brain drain’ has descended upon UF in response to the bill and similar legislation, Nunn said, expressing that the majority of African American faculty he knows who haven’t left already are likely looking to leave. 

“I think that would have a devastating effect,” he said. 

Following his departure from UF, Nunn is currently teaching at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., where he said it encourages his research. 

Florida House Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the Democratic caucus will continue to advocate for an inclusive curriculum and a safe space for students moving into 2024. 

“It’s important to teach history accurately,” she said in a press conference. 

HB 899 “Academic Freedom,” a new initiative proposed by Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville, aims to reverse certain provisions of HB 999. According to the bill text, it would work to restore DEI programs and prevent “undue political influence” on academic affairs, including curriculum design, further seeking to protect education across “all academic disciplines” if enacted. 

However, in matters of critical race theory, Driskell said it’s important to note that the discipline has never been a part of required curriculum in Florida K-12 schools, instead officially presented to students at the college level. 

UF African American Studies Program Director David Canton said HB 999 had more of an impact on general education courses than the upper level electives he teaches, which have remained largely unaffected.

The controversy over the curriculum would be something he’d teach about, Canton said. 

“We’re going to show the debates about these issues because they’re part of the discipline,” he said. 

Due to stricter legislation, Florida K-12 schools have fared differently. 

The 2022 Individual Freedom Act, nicknamed the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” by critics, established that insinuating any race is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive could constitute discrimination. It also revised requirements for instruction on African Americans in K-12 public schools. 

Florida banned the newly developed Advanced Placement African American Studies soon after in 2023, prohibiting the college level course in public high schools. The Florida Department of Education wrote the course was “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value” but did not indicate which law was violated. 

“The question is why can’t this information be presented to a 15-year-old, 16- or 17-year-old?” Canton said. 

The course’s curriculum has since been modified, but the College Board did not indicate that its subsequent approval in Florida was a driving factor behind the changes. The new curriculum includes topics like intersectionality but only lists classwork on reparations and BLM, which were previously required as optional, and Black Queer studies were excluded completely. 

The College Board hopes to officially launch the finalized AP course in Fall 2024.

Education reform is a battle of interpretation hinged on the version of information teachers provide their students more than anything else, Canton said. 

He described the AP African American Studies curriculum, specifically the issue of reparations, through the lens of a violent crime that took place less than 50 miles west of Gainesville. 

The 1923 Rosewood Massacre resulted in the deaths of at least six individuals and the destruction of a historically Black community. A 1994 Florida bill still offers descendants of victims of the massacre scholarships that could fully cover tuition for state universities. 

Canton said it’s ironic to move from a time when Florida was actively attempting to right historic injustices to the present day where the discussion of reparations isn’t required. 

“That’s an interesting paradox right there,” he said. 

The short-term elimination of AP African American Studies was disappointing to Chiemela Onwuchekwa, a 16-year-old Buchholz High School junior.  

“It made me really sad,” she said. “In our history classes, when they do talk about African American history, it’s not to a deep enough extent that people can actually fully grasp African American history and how it has a big impact on Black people currently and also U.S. history as a whole.” 

Senate Bill 928 proposed by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, would require public schools to include ample curriculum on African American history and the Holocaust if passed, instituting annual verifications that educational standards are being met.  

On the other hand, the state also faced criticism after the Florida Department of Education approved a new curriculum in 2023 on African American studies that instructs students beginning in middle school that enslaved African Americans experienced what DeSantis described as “personal benefit” by learning life skills. 

An initiative sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, could take the current standard further by putting an emphasis on the Democratic Party’s pro-slavery stance prior to the Civil War and the Republican Party’s creation as a countermovement if enacted. The bill has been dubbed the “Kamala Harris Truth in Slavery Teaching Act” after Vice President Harris, a member of the Democratic Party, criticized Florida’s current curriculum. 

Onwuchekwa, president of the Buchholz Black Student Union, said she would internally laugh if a teacher insinuated slavery had any type of positive impact on the Black community. 

“It’s a joke,” she said. “There is no way anyone who is qualified in their job as a history teacher should say that and actually believe it.” 

That type of instruction would be false and misleading, she said. 

If passed in 2024, Senate Bill 344 proposed by Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, would directly prohibit this part of the curriculum.

Onwuchekwa said she hopes to see more legislation opposing DeSantis’ education reform because current laws could perpetuate ignorance and cultural divides. 

“Younger generations who are growing up and coming into high school and beyond, they’re not actually going to learn anything,” she said. 

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at rdigiacomo-rapp@alligator.org. Follow her on X @rylan_digirapp.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.


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