Florida shouldn’t waste its teachable moments
History offers a great lesson plan to deal with race and racism in Florida. If only our public schools had the appropriate tools to teach it.
There’s clearly a need to help students offset racial divisiveness, whether it’s from the President’s Twitter assault against NFL players or the ongoing efforts to remove Confederate memorials across the state.
Fortunately, Florida has a law on the books that expands the teaching of Florida history, while promoting the state’s rich cultural diversity. Florida Statute 1003.42 (2) (h) mandates public schools teach African-American history, including the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.
The statute also set up a task force to promote awareness and develop guidelines to support implementation of the mandate. The law has been on the books for years, but teaching African-American history in hopes of resolving racial differences has never been a priority.
Schools within Florida’s 67 school districts either have ignored the law outright, or given the subject short shrift. Over the years, the task force has had its successes, including developing an online African-American studies curriculum for Florida schools. However, as an advisory panel, the task force can’t force school districts to comply with the law.
Black state lawmakers have tried to work with state education officials to improve the process, or re-write the law, without much success. Now, elected officials across the state are scrambling to convince their constituents of the proper response to a controversial history.
Some are faring better than others. The Hollywood city commission, for example, decided to strip the names of Nathan Bedford Forrest and two other Confederate leaders from its city streets. In Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature bounced the responsibility of removing the memorial from the Capitol back and forth with no resolution in sight.
Leading on racial issues is tough, but necessary. In 1990, a Florida State University professor and student leaders implemented a diversity requirement for graduation. The goal was to give students from different backgrounds the opportunity to better understand race and culture to enhance their academic experience at the university and, upon graduation, prepare them for life in a diverse world.
Imagine if the existing law mandating a more diverse educational curriculum in our public schools could be strengthened. Think of the impact it would have on primary and secondary students.
Our children should learn more about our state’s rich history — the influence the Florida territory had as the first destination of America’s Underground Railroad, the impact British and American rule had on Florida’s early Black settlers, our state’s role in the Civil War, Reconstruction and the years leading to the civil rights era.
To do that, our educators and state leaders need to step up.
Governor Scott has an opportunity to work with the State Department of Education to strengthen the law to provide school districts with better training and materials to empower our educators to explain Florida’s rich racial history. If he doesn’t see this as a priority, Floridians can choose a new governor next year who does.
Sean Pittman is the Senior Partner of Pittman Law Group, a Tallahassee-based law firm with statewide operations that specializes in government, administrative and corporate law.