Feb 1, 2024 - News

"No one wants to be fired": Florida teachers enter Black History Month with new restrictions

Illustration of a teacher's hand trying to write on a tiny chalkboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Teachers across the country and Florida are marking the start of Black History Month despite recent laws that make it difficult — if not impossible — to have classroom discussions about race, racism and slavery.

Why it matters: The new restrictions, often vaguely written, are making it difficult for educators to know how to approach Black history with students.

  • "How do I teach the end of slavery, the 13th amendment, and then not answer or acknowledge" the atrocities of it, Crystal Etienne, a middle school civics teacher in Miami-Dade County, tells Axios.

The latest: In July, the Florida Board of Education approved new social studies standards that sparked national outrage for including lessons about how enslaved people benefited from their bondage.

State of play: While many schools will have events to commemorate the month, a lot of teachers are approaching Black history carefully, Etienne says.

  • Miami-Dade County schools offered teachers supplemental materials this year, such as additional readings or lesson plans that are "aligned with state standards," but many teachers will likely avoid them, she adds.

Threat level: "A lot of teachers don't want to risk [getting in trouble], so they're just going to opt out" of using them, she says.

  • "I try to tie in as much Black history to the material we're supposed to be using already, but a lot of teachers won't. No one wants to be fired."

Between the lines: Etienne acknowledged the materials recognized the contributions and influence African Americans have had on the country and the arts, which she found surprising given how those facts have been minimized under new laws.

The big picture: At least 14 states have passed legislation since 2022 restricting how educators can discuss the nation's racial past, an Axios analysis of National Conference of State Legislatures data found.

  • Six other states have created similar limitations via administrative actions, according to the group.
  • Around 30 states have introduced similar laws since last year.

Zoom in: Florida, under Gov. Ron DeSantis, has been among the most aggressive in limiting what educators can teach about racism.

  • The State Board of Education approved a rule change in 2021 prohibiting teachings that "distort historical events," which includes critical race theory and the New York Times Magazine's "The 1619 Project."

The bottom line: Despite the worry educators have about the new restrictions, Etienne says many won't touch the materials because they simply have no time to do so.

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