The first bell of the 2023-2024 school year is set to ring on Friday, but there are some changes made by the Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education to which teachers will have to adjust — and some for which Polk County Public Schools’ administrators are racing to create new policies.
The changes include:
- A policy called “Teachers’ Right to Control Their Classroom.”
- New — and some say controversial — American history standards.
- A new “Civics Seal of Excellence” for teachers.
- Approved curriculum videos from conservative think tank “Prager U,” which is not a university.
- The requirement that students use restrooms and locker rooms that adhere to their biological sex at birth.
- The uncertain status of AP Psychology.
While some say the changes were made to mold students into patriotic citizens, others criticize lawmakers for what they call overt conservative indoctrination.
Teachers Bill of Rights
The “Teachers Bill of Rights” was passed this year and includes things that were already established practices, including:
- Establishing and implementing consequences, which are designed to change behavior, for infractions of classroom rules of conduct.
- Having disobedient, disrespectful, violent, abusive, uncontrollable, or disruptive students removed from the classroom for behavior management intervention.
- Having violent, abusive, uncontrollable, or disruptive students directed to appropriate school or district school board personnel for information and assistance.
- Using reasonable force, according to standards adopted by the State Board of Education, to protect himself or herself or others from injury.
One change includes cases in which a teacher faces litigation or professional practices sanctions for an action taken to control their classroom.
“There is a rebuttable presumption that a teacher was taking necessary action to restore or maintain the safety or educational atmosphere of his or her classroom,” it reads.
The National Center for Education Statistics said reports of classroom disruptions have increased by 56% since the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the 2021-2022 school year, there were more than 174,085 out-of-school suspensions across the state according to data from the Florida Department of Education. That’s up from the 154,798 out-of-school suspensions during the 2018-2019 school year, the year before the pandemic.
Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum called the Teachers Bill of Rights “smoke and mirrors” regarding policies that already existed. She said she is in talks with Superintendent Frederick Heid about developing policies that protect everyone involved.
“There’s just a lot of intricacies — not just in these bills that were passed into law, but other bills being signed into law that this legislature and this governor like to pass just to say they passed it,” Yocum said. “But they don’t actually talk to people that implement it on the ground. And so there’s, there’s still a lot of things that need to be worked out with policies.”
But what rights teachers, students and parents have is not spelled out clearly enough.
“So as far as what a teacher has a right to do, what a parent has a right to do, and where does one person’s right end and where does another person’s right begin …” Yocum said. “The Teacher Bill of Rights essentially says the teacher can just take a kid’s cell phone, but we also know that there’s a lot of legality in that, too, in that it’s a high-dollar piece of property … Without a policy, each teacher, each school, each region or county could deal with things differently. And in a county our size, we just have to have uniform policies so that not only teachers and other staff are protected, but kids and parents and property is protected.”
Changes to History Curriculum
One change in Florida’s academic state standards in history is one that has earned national attention in recent weeks — SS.68.AA.2.3. It is a new standard, although teachers are not mandated to teach it – there are other standards in that section that can be taught instead.
“Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation),” the standard reads. “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
The standard doesn’t mention that when 4 million were freed, most had no place to go and no means to leave and so remained on plantations to continue working for little to no money as sharecroppers. That arrangement lasted for 100 years or more for some families, with no way out other than education, military service or inventiveness.
The middle school lesson is one that some teachers say they refuse to use in their classroom.
“I can’t stand there and say that to anybody — I’m not going to do that. I was trained to teach the good, the bad and the ugly and slavery was bad, and in no way shape or form did they benefit from that,” said Cassie Gibson, a 6th grade U.S. history teacher at Union Academy in Bartow. “My problem with this, number one, is I’m a primary source kind of teacher — I use primary source documents a lot in my classroom. And if I sincerely say something like that out loud to my 135 children that I have, then I better get some primary source documents. And I don’t think they’re going to find it.”
Gibson said she will teach what she always has about the Civil War: its causes and its effects.
“I really do it through the Confiscation Act and the Emancipation Proclamation because they are primary source documents and those are tangible products that my kids can read and analyze and understand the world better,” Gibson said. “But I can’t in good conscience say something like that to my students, especially when I have nothing to back that up. To me, it sounds like an opinion.”
Yocum said they will stand behind teachers on this matter.
“I can tell you one thing, both of our national unions and our statements have vowed that they will, with all legal recourse protect teachers that are coming under fire when they’re teaching true history,” Yocum said. “And so, and we have made that vow, our state affiliates have made that vow our national affiliates have made that vow that we will protect teachers with all legal recourse if they are teaching true history. “Because if you don’t stand up for something, you stand for nothing. And we have to, in the face of blatant disregard for real history, we have to stand up and teach the truth.”
Polk County Public Schools spokesman Kyle Kennedy said it is up to the teacher.
“Teachers will have flexibility in how they teach the standards, and if they have questions, they can speak with their administrators or district staff,” Kennedy said.
Civics Seal of Excellence
DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education launched the Civics Seal of Excellence in January, saying that more than 10,000 teachers registered for the course within the first week. FDOE created the 50-hour online program with more than 28 hours of “high-quality video lessons” focused on America’s history, civics, and government.
“Understanding the founding principles of our nation is the key to protecting and maintaining our republic for generations to come,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.
Gibson said she took a 55-hour course over the summer to become certified in history and civics instruction. She can add it to her National Board Certification – a rigorous, demanding process that includes research, lesson plans and observations over several years.
She called the 55-hour video training — which the state touts as “quality” – as boring because the videos were someone sitting in a chair, staring at a screen and lecturing. In addition, she had an issue with the content.
“The first module relies on God a lot, and how the Founding Fathers look to God and the Bible and, as I said to someone who was familiar with the course, they emphasize things throughout the whole entire course that I would not, and they downplay things in U.S. history and civics — and I have taught both — that I would have made more prominent in my classroom,” Gibson said.
One of the things she said they downplayed “that struck me hard … was the fact that they said only 4% of the Africans actually made it to the North American continent, to the colonies.
“Well, that’s fine, but that 4% ended up being, by 1865, 4.1 million slaves,” Gibson said. “They were downplaying the slavery part of things, and as a person of good conscience that knows American history, I cannot do that.”
Gibson added there was only one reason she took the course — the $3,000 the state paid as a bonus.
“So, purely, I did it for the money because I’m not getting a decent raise,” she said. “And that hurt my heart to have to do something that I did not want to do, but I did it for the money.”
According to The Miami Herald, the Florida Department of Education approved last month the use of supplemental educational materials for children created by PragerU, an online nonprofit site co-founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager and not an actual university or accredited educational entity.
“We promote American values through the creative use of educational videos that reach millions of people online,” the nonprofit’s website states. “Prager University Foundation (“PragerU”) offers a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.”
Five-minute videos on PragerU’s website are narrated by conservative hosts, including Tucker Carlson, who was fired from Fox News for lying about the 2020 presidential race and disparaging his bosses.
One video is “The Plantation: Then and Now,” narrated by Candace Owens, author of “Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation,” and a conservative political commentator.
“In the first half the 19th Century, 4 million Blacks worked as slaves in prison on plantations in the American South. They were prevented from learning how to read, their families were forcibly broken up, and if they tried to escape, they were severely and brutally punished,” Owens says. “The owners of these plantations were almost without exception Democrats.”
She goes on to say that the plantation system is still in place today in cities run by Democrats — referring to them as “masters.”
What Owens doesn’t detail is that the Republican and Democratic parties essentially switched ideologies starting in the 1940s through the 1960s, when Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (Democrats) were pushing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act so Black people would be treated fairly. Some Southern Democrats, who opposed civil and voting rights for Black people, banded together to form a party called the Dixiecrats. They supported continued segregation of the races and many were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the Dixiecrats migrated to the Republican Party.
In the PragerU video “Everyone Should Stand For The National Anthem,” by Joy Villa, a recording artist and supporter of former President Donald Trump, she quotes her mother as to why former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick was wrong not to stand for the national anthem.
“His idea was to protest the alleged mistreatment of Black people by police and by America, in general,” Villa said. “The national anthem stands for freedom, even the freedom to do foolish things — like protesting the national anthem. But like my Mama always said, ‘Just because you are free to do the wrong thing, it doesn’t mean you should.’”
Teachers union president Yocum condemned the Prager U videos in the strongest terms possible.
“I’m going to call it bulls***, because it’s bulls***,” Yocum said. “And I would urge any other parent that has a child in the system that cares about teaching true and authentic, raw, sometimes uncomfortable history to do the same. Because we cannot allow our children to be indoctrinated by false statements and right-wing curriculum that is teaching falsity under the guise of truth.”
PragerU will not be a part of PCPS curriculum.
“We have no plans to use PragerU materials at this time,” Kennedy said.
This year, the legislature also voted to require restrooms and changing facilities in K-12 schools be separated based on biological sex at birth and to protect students from being exposed to adult live entertainment while attending a school-sponsored event or activity.
Yocum said she doesn’t know how many transgender students, who would need to utilize the facilities of their chosen gender, attend Polk County Public Schools and doesn’t know if there is even a mechanism to track that. She also said that there is not a plan in place to help trans students by allowing them to use an alternative bathroom, such as an administrator’s or the teachers’ restroom.
“I can tell you that a lot of these children are protected under federal laws and constitutional amendments,” Yocum said. “And so I think this is going to be an issue sorted out in court, when parents start suing for their trans children.”
Kennedy said district officials are still working on guidance that will be provided to school administrators.
“By law, every school must have at least one private unisex, single-use bathroom,” Kennedy said. “The law also requires students to use bathrooms/changing rooms that correspond to their biological sex. We intend to accommodate students within the limits of the law.”
Kennedy also said drag shows are not a part of PCPS’ culture.
“We have no knowledge of any drag shows being hosted in PCPS schools, or field trips to drag shows,” he said.
The most recent change for teachers and students came to light Thursday when the College Board issued a statement saying: “We are sad to have learned that today the Florida Department of Education has effectively banned AP Psychology in the state by instructing Florida superintendents that teaching foundational content on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal under state law.
The state initially said districts are free to teach AP Psychology only if it excludes any mention of these essential topics.” A day later, state officials appeared to have reconsidered and opened the door for the course to be taught in full, but many questions remain.
The controversy comes after this year’s expansion of the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which bans discussions about sex, gender identity in all Kindergarten through 12th grade classes “unless such instruction is either expressly required by academic standards as adopted in Rule 6A-1.09401, F.A.C., or is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend.”
“Florida is proud to lead the way in standing up for our children,” Governor Ron DeSantis said in a press release in May when he signed the bill’s expansion, dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay Law.” “As the world goes mad, Florida represents a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy.”
The College Board, which oversees all Advanced Placement classes nationwide, shared in June that it can’t modify AP Psychology in response to regulations “that would censor college-level standards for credit, placement, and career readiness. Our policy remains unchanged. Any course that censors required course content cannot be labeled ‘AP’ or ‘Advanced Placement,’ and the ‘AP Psychology’ designation cannot be utilized on student transcripts.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called it a “noxious maneuver” and “government censorship.”
“Sadly, it’s all part of the DeSantis playbook of eroding rights, censoring those he disagrees with and undermining access to knowledge,” Weingaerten said in a press release. “Countless students have lost out because the governor ended AP African American studies, and now this assault on AP psychology.”
PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid sent a letter home to parents on Friday, saying the district will not be able to offer the course. It affects 470 students.
“Please know that I share your frustration with the recent turn of events,” Heid wrote. I had hoped the department and College Board would be able to find a resolution that benefits our students. Unfortunately, the parties are at an impasse, and I don’t expect meaningful resolution in the near future. Instead, we will shift our focus to ensuring that we find a quality alternative course for your child.”
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