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“Lacks Educational Value”? Critics Slam Florida’s Rejection of AP African American Studies Course

StoryJanuary 25, 2023
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Image Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Civil right advocates, educators and lawyers, like Ben Crump, are fighting Florida education officials who rejected a new Advanced Placement course for high school students on African American studies. Officials say the course “lacks educational value,” and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis claims the course violates state law. Opponents object to the course’s inclusion of works by scholar and former Black Panther Angela Davis, and of material on intersectionality, reparations and Black queer history, among other topics. Last year, Florida passed a so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that prevents Florida teachers from discussing sexuality and gender identity in classrooms. We go to Miami and Tallahassee to speak to Dr. Steve Gallon, a lifelong educator and a former teacher, principal and superintendent, who now serves as an elected school board member for Miami-Dade County Schools, and Democratic state Senator Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay person to serve in the state’s Senate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at how racial justice advocates and educators in Florida are vowing to fight the rejection by Florida state education officials of a new Advanced Placement course for high school students in African American studies. Florida’s Education Department said the course “lacks educational value,” reportedly raised concern about six points in the curriculum: Black queer studies, intersectionality, Movement for Black Lives, Black feminist literary thought, the reparations movement and Black struggle in the 21st century.

On Monday, the Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and possible presidential aspirant, said he supports the Florida Education Department’s rejection of the course, and claimed it violates state law.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: This course on Black history, what are one — what’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids. And so, when you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that’s a political agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Later today, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump will announce a lawsuit against Florida over its rejection of an Advanced Placement African American studies pilot program, that we’re talking about today. He’ll be joined by three AP honor students, who will serve as the lead plaintiffs, and by one of our guests, who joins us now from Florida, in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. Shevrin Jones is a Democratic Florida state senator, Bahamian American and Florida’s first openly gay state senator. And in Miami, we’re joined by Dr. Steve Gallon, president of the Miami Alliance of Black School Educators and an elected school board member for Miami-Dade County Schools, a lifelong educator and former school teacher, principal and superintendent.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! State Senator Shevrin Jones, your response to the state blocking this national AP Black studies course?

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: Well, first, thank you for having me.

I think it’s important for us to point out that this is far greater than just talking about AP classes right now. What we’re talking about is the history of Black America. We’re talking about the plight of Black America. And we also should make sure that we point out that when we look at what Governor DeSantis and the Republicans are doing, this is just not a Florida thing. This is something that we need to ensure that does not happen and spread across this country.

As I have made it clear, and I will continue to say it, that our history does bring educational value. We are of value. We are of substance to this country and of this state. And what the governor is doing in moving forward and blocking students from being able to not just learn about history, to understand other people’s history, it is not only wrong, it’s disingenuous to the 22 million people within the state and the 20% of African Americans who live amongst the 22 million people within the state of Florida.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Senator, it’s obviously not just the governor. The Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. called, quote, “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” Could you talk about the — why you feel this movement from the most extreme elements of the Republican leadership in Florida is occurring now?

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: I think it’s important to understand that these buzzwords of “indoctrination,” “wokeism,” all of these things that the governor and the Republicans, not just here in Florida but across the country, are saying actually have meaning. The word “woke” was used in the 1930s. That was used by activists, by leaders to inform Black Americans to be cognizant of policies that were coming down from elected officials. And now that’s being turned, and now they are trying to indoctrinate children to say that that’s wrong.

Since when have we come to a place to where we are banning books and telling children what’s appropriate, what they can and they cannot learn? That’s not wokeism. That’s not indoctrination. That’s facts. That’s how I’ve learned. That’s how you learn. That’s how the American people have learned over the years. We’ve learned about Jewish history. We’ve learned about European history. Now all of a sudden African American history is the problem? No, it’s about what is happening across this country and what’s being spread across this country, for a time that we have fought so hard, my ancestors have fought so hard for, to get us to this point, to get us out of the place where we were to where we are now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond specifically, state Senator Shevrin Jones, to DeSantis questioning what does Black queer history have to do with AP Black studies? And in your response, if you can talk about, oh, everyone from Bayard Rustin to James Baldwin, and what this means to you as the first openly gay state senator elected in Florida?

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: The list can continue to go on. We could say James Baldwin. We could talk about Marsha P. Johnson. Let’s continue to call those names. That’s America’s story. That’s who we are. I’m America’s story. And somebody else will come to be America’s story. Why are we taking that away from children?

And here’s what we cannot allow the Governor’s Office or anyone to get past, and that is the fact that they said what they said. They said that African American studies brought no educational value to children in our education system. That means that we have the potential for Black children in the state of Florida to learn and not be represented in their education.

And as a Black man, as the first openly gay Black man here within the state of Florida, I know what my history is. But there’s a young man, there’s a young woman, sitting in a classroom, who needs to know who a Marsha P. Johnson, who needs to know a James Baldwin, who must understand that their story has been told before. They made it, they can make it, and others will continue to make it, as we continue to live in this place we call America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Dr. Steve Gallon to the conversation. Your reaction to the decision and the support of the governor against this AP course? And also, what’s been the reaction on the Miami-Dade School Board that you serve on?

STEVE GALLON III: Yes. Good morning. Again, thank you for having me.

My initial reaction was that the position that was messaged was counter to Florida law. Florida law explicitly stipulates that Black history shall be taught to students throughout the state. It doesn’t say “may.” It doesn’t say “can.” It says “shall.” So, to the extent that there was a denial of access to this information to a segment of students that may be interested and desirous of pursuing Advanced Placement courses, which obviously has a significant economic impact to them in their trajectory for higher education, I was somewhat taken aback.

I, too, share the sentiment relative to the message that came out — “significantly lacks educational value.” I think that resurrected a great sense of rancor amongst not only African Americans but people throughout the state and, quite frankly, as you could see, throughout the country. And as I have represented, although we represent approximately 22% of the population of the state of Florida, African American history is not something that’s simply contiguous to Black students. African American history should be contiguous and accessible to all students, because I contend that knowledge is the bridge to understanding. So, if we are going to deny that bridge, deny students an opportunity to cross that bridge, to better understand their fellow students, their fellow neighbors, their citizens, I think that is taking us back. And again, I think the rancor around this particular issue has opened up significant wounds that have lingered, quite frankly, for over 400 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk, Dr. Steve Gallon, as a former superintendent, a former principal, a former teacher? They are talking about actual felony charges against teachers who speak about various issues. Explain what teachers are facing right now.

STEVE GALLON III: I can’t, Amy, imagine what it is like, having been a classroom teacher, as well Senator Jones has been. Classrooms and, quite friendly, public education, I believe, still represents the final frontier for social justice. It represents the epicenter of freedom. And to the extent that teachers are feeling unsafe, they’re not feeling comfortable, they’re looking over their shoulder, they’re walking a fine line between instruction and being able to allow students to express themselves, there has been a great degree of consternation around that particular issue. I’ve heard from teachers directly regarding the fact that the academic freedom principles upon which instruction, pedagogy and public education have been grounded are being severely compromised. And again, students need to have an opportunity to express themselves. And education can be used as an instrument of freedom or an instrument of conformity. So, what we’re seeing in some cases is that either you conform or else. And conformity is not something that we want to present to our students, not only in their learning but in their lives, in what we call a democracy in the greatest country that the world has ever known.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Gallon, can this decision of the Education Department be challenged? We’re hearing now of a potential lawsuit about to be announced. Are there any other ways to challenge this decision?

STEVE GALLON III: What I initially anticipated — and again, it’s about messaging. Having been a part of the bureaucracy for, again, over 30 years, the process of submission, review and feedback, that is a normal process. For one to submit something, to have it reviewed, to have feedback provided, and to have an opportunity to remediate any deficiencies or any gaps that may be perceived by the individual organization that received it, that’s normal. I think what came out was the messaging, and that, again, appeared to be somewhat offensive — not appeared to be. I take that back. It was actually offensive, the language that was used, when you’re talking about something “significantly lacks educational value.” What portion of it? So, that level of ambiguity, along with that messaging, created the consternation, the rancor and, quite frankly, the harm that many people feel regarding something that we’re very, very deeply concerned about.

So, we did anticipate, hopefully, that there would be an opportunity. I see that’s starting to take place right now. But it’s not about intent. It’s about impact. The impact has already been felt by teachers, by educators, by community members, by our leaders. And again, this is not something that’s restricted to the African American community. This is something that each and every one of us should all be concerned about, because we are — at the end of the day, we’re all Americans, and we should be willing, ready and able to embrace, share and appreciate and, most importantly, respect each other’s story.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play more of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. This is when he took his culture war on the road a few months ago to stump for Trump-backed candidates, and the growing speculation about him running for president in 2024.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this: The state of Florida is where woke goes to die.

AMY GOODMAN: “Where woke goes to die.” And I wanted to talk about people dying, Florida state Senator Shevrin Jones. A report from The Trevor Project last year found that LGBT youth who learned about LGBT issues or figures in school are substantially less likely to report a past year suicide attempt than those who did not. Talk about the fear of LGBTQ students right now, their safety.

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: Yeah, one in four LGBTQ youth commit suicide, Amy. And it’s not because of who they are; it’s because of how they are treated. Just last year, we did the Parental Rights in Education bill, which was an attack on the LGBTQ community, and it rained across this country. LGBTQ youth was far within the capital, talking to legislators. It brings great harm. When individuals feel as if they cannot, or they’re not, represented, again, here within their state, individuals, they feel left out. Individuals feel as if they’re going to lash out. And so, it’s dangerous, what we’re seeing.

I think school board member Gallon, he said it best. It is the intersectionality of who we are that makes us who we are. But what we are seeing here within the state of Florida is the pinning against marginalized communities, the pinning against LGBTQ people, the pinning against African Americans. And you just heard from the governor, this is where woke comes to die. Well, this is the free state of Florida. But clearly, there’s nothing free about what we’re experiencing here within the state of Florida. Marginalized people are in bondage. Every single year legislative session, it gets greater and greater, because this is the agenda that’s being pushed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Senator Jones, this agenda is being pushed not only in Florida, although it’s become the poster state for it, but it’s happening across the country. There’s a wave of states attempting to censor discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Why do you think that is?

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: Well, I can’t speak to individuals’ impetus behind why they’re doing what they’re doing, but what I can say is that there is this outcry that’s happening. I will piggyback off of school board member Gallon again, that this is more than just a Black issue. This is more than just a LGBTQ issue. This is an issue that we, as Americans, should be fighting together.

To speak to why this is happening, it’s a power issue. When individuals see the shifting of America, the shifting of America causes for individuals to rise up and say, “This will not be allowed. We want to make sure we do everything to keep our finger on the pulse, to make sure that we can control what you learn, we can control what you teach, we can control what you say, and we can control what you do.”

AMY GOODMAN: Going to be holding a news conference today with Ben Crump. Can you talk about the lawsuit that’s being filed, and how you want to deal with this, as we move into Black History Month?

SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: Absolutely, Amy. We were just planning on having a plain press conference. But this press conference has calls for students, high school students, college students from FAMU and from Florida State University to join in. We have Rebecca Pringle, the president from the National Education Association, who’s coming down. The NAACP will be present.

This is a national outcry, because — I will say what you all just said — that this is bigger than just a Florida issue. This is a national issue. If you think that people across the country are not watching what happens in Florida, because they believe, “If we can do it here, they can do it there” — and that will be a problem. And that’s why you’re seeing the national outcry. The press conference that we’re having today is to make it clear that if you’re going to start here, we’re going to match your energy. We’re going to start here also, and we’re going to file a lawsuit to make it clear that we, Black people, marginalized people, will not be the political punching bag.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida state Senator Shevrin Jones, first openly gay state senator in Florida, and Dr. Steve Gallon, Miami-Dade County Schools board member and lifelong educator. He’s been a superintendent, as well as a principal and teacher. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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