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School board member talks Florida's block of AP African American studies course

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Department of Education in Florida says it is rejecting a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be offered to high schools in the state. In a letter addressed to the College Board, it states the course is, quote, "historically inaccurate and violates state law." Now, it's not clear exactly which law, but last year, Governor Ron DeSantis signed something called the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees, or Stop WOKE, Act. In it, schools and corporations are prohibited from offering training or lessons to students or employees that include any of eight concepts, including that people are inherently racist or oppressive because of their race or sex, or that they should feel guilt or anguish because of past actions by people of their race or sex.

In a statement to NPR, the College Board says the course is still being piloted, a process that takes several years, and it's still collecting feedback from teachers and policymakers, just as it would for any other AP course, and that it will publicly release the updated framework when it is completed. But critics are calling the action another attention-seeking gambit, as Governor DeSantis enters his second term in office and is considering a presidential bid.

We wanted to hear from somebody who is part of educational policymaking, so we called Steve Gallon III. He is an elected school board member for Miami-Dade County Schools, a lifelong educator and a former state school superintendent. And he is with us now. Mr. Gallon, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE GALLON III: Thanks for having me, Michel. I'm glad to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: So your initial reactions when you heard that the course had been rejected.

GALLON: My initial reactions were related to the fact that that decision is really inconsistent with what we see as Florida law. So to the extent that there's a representation that it does not comply with law, the teaching of Black history is actually stipulated in state statute. The state has a provision in law that says schools shall teach Black history, and it should include topics that reflect but not - that are not limited to the African civilization, the establishment of slavery, the Middle Passage, Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow, abolitionist movement - it really speaks to the contributions of African Americans, the struggles, the achievement. And these are stipulated expectations in Florida law, so when I first heard that, I wanted to really get a sense of, No. 1, the inconsistency, and No. 2, why?

MARTIN: So what happens now, I guess, is what I'm saying is, the - presumably, like, the purpose of these AP exams, which are optional, by the way; nobody's required to take any AP course. They are offered, as I understand it, to allow students to demonstrate a level of mastery over specific subjects that is deemed as attractive to colleges and/or it allows students to kind of get college credits in advance so that they can accelerate their higher education. So I'm not going to ask you to speculate about what they do, but it does seem like this is part of a whole political kind of movement to regulate or to object to things that some people find uncomfortable. And so then I'm just interested, like, what do you, as an educator, do in that environment?

GALLON: As a policymaker, we wait until the process comes to its completion. So, No. 1, the process does involve submission, review and feedback, OK? That is the process, whether it's a textbook, whether it's an AP course, anything that's considered for implementation in our schools throughout the state or, quite frankly, even in the district. The district will have someone to submit. The district will review, will provide feedback prior to a disapproval or approval. Now, the rejection made the headlines, but the subsequent revision and approval went unnoticed - unreported on.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying.

GALLON: So a lot of...

MARTIN: I see what you're saying.

GALLON: ...Times, if you want to make a public statement for whatever reasons - whatever your reasons are - I don't want to speculate, OK? But I think it's enough of some level of consistency around how these messages have been coming out - who these messages play to and what policy positions that have been articulated that they align with.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. So what you're - I think I hear you saying is that this course may yet be approved.

GALLON: Yes.

MARTIN: And students may yet be able to take it.

GALLON: Yes.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, there have been anecdotal reports that teachers in parts of the state have seen books that they consider to be entirely appropriate questioned or held up or removed from libraries - you know, books about, like, Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass, and sort of classic historical figures that people have studied for decades now. Are you getting reports like that? Do you think - is that true? I mean, there are those who are concerned that this state law, this so-called Stop WOKE Act, is already having a chilling effect and an overly broad effect on what students have access to. Do you share that concern?

GALLON: Yeah, I share that concern. And I indicated earlier that teachers do walk a fine line more so than they have in the past and more so than they were expected to do in the four corners of a classroom that really speaks to the epicenter of academic freedom. So, yes, it is something that teachers are cognizant of and obviously principals and educators and even policymakers are cognizant of. Things that we normally would not expect to be divisive or contentious or potentially problematic - you have to kind of think twice about it right now in the climate that we're in.

MARTIN: Are you concerned about that, or do you think that overall, even though it's nerve wracking, that students are still getting what they need to be functional members of the society, which is, I think, at the core of what school is about?

GALLON: Yeah, our students are getting what they need, but I think parents do have a right. Parents do have - should have a say. I support that wholeheartedly. Parents have a choice, but I think we have to balance that with what education has been reflected in what we consider the experts in the field should be able to do. So I have known education to be the epicenter of academic freedom, the epicenter of democracy, and the final frontier of where we can safely exchange ideas, whether we agree or disagree, but that we utilize education and our differences in information, and that knowledge becomes a bridge to understanding. And so when we speak to Black history or African American history, it's not something that's restricted to Black students. It is something that each and every one of us should have access to, because that builds our ability to understand each other moving forward.

MARTIN: That was Steve Gallon III. He is an educator and an elected school board member for Miami-Dade County Schools. Mr. Gallon, thanks so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

GALLON: My pleasure. Thank you and have a great day. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD'S "THINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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