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Florida Unveils Controversial New Education Curriculum Standards On Slavery

The debate is around language saying schools should teach “how slaves developed skills which could be applied for their benefit.”
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Board of Education on July 19 passed updated curriculum standards. Debate over the standards has centered on language in the Black history component that says schools should teach “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Jamelle Bouie writes that the phrasing of the curricular standards suggests that Black people benefited from slavery. Bouie says few slaves learned useful skills during their enslavement and says the portions of the Florida standards related to the development of skills deemphasizes the experiences of the majority who were not fortunate enough to gain useful experience.

Rich Lowry writes that the Florida standards do not say that slaves benefited from slavery. Instead, Lowry says the standards related to slaves who developed skills emphasize the resilience and strength of slaves despite their oppression.

“The good-faith explanation for this language, if you’re inclined to be generous, is that the authors wanted to emphasize the agency and skill of the enslaved, whose labor fueled large parts of the American economy in the decades before Emancipation. It’s an important point that you can also find in the College Board’s Advanced Placement class in African American studies. ‘In addition to agricultural work, enslaved people learned specialized trades and worked as painters, carpenters, tailors, musicians and healers in the North and South,’ the A.P. guidelines state. ‘Once free, African Americans used these skills to provide for themselves and others.’ Similar points, yes, but the language isn’t quite the same. In addition to using the term ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’ — a linguistic shift that continues to be a subject of real debate — the language for the A.P. curriculum emphasizes that Black Americans could use these skills only after Emancipation. This is key. Slaves were owned as chattel by other human beings who stole their freedom, labor and bodily autonomy. To say that any more than a fortunate few could ‘parlay’ their skills into anything that might improve their lives is to spin a fiction.”

“This is not the first or second thing, or even the 19th, that you’d want students to learn about slavery, but it is also indisputably true and part of the record. No one is saying the enslaved “benefited” from slavery. It’s not an endorsement of slavery to point out that slaves looked for every crack in the system to try to improve themselves and gain some autonomy — rather, it’s an endorsement of the pluck, initiative, and resilience of an oppressed people operating in the worst of circumstances. We are supposed to believe that enslaved African Americans strained against their awful condition  in every way (as they actually did) — learning to read, protecting their family life, worshipping on their own, defying their masters when they could, creating an elaborate system of escape — but they never, ever learned a skill to their own benefit. This is, of course, nonsense. Learning skills was another aspect of African-American agency, which was never wiped out no matter how much their oppressors tried to make it so. &mldr; Was slavery good for these men? Absolutely not. The point is what they accomplished despite slavery, not because of it.”

Also on Aug. 1, residents voted in a recall election against three of the five members of the Richland School District school board—Audra Byrd, Semi Bird, and Kari Williams. Recall supporters said that the board members violated the Open Public Meetings Act; violated district policies, procedures, and code of ethics; and voted to make masks optional while a statewide mask requirement was in place. All three board members denied any wrongdoing.

In Kansas, three seats on the Wichita Public Schools school board are up for election on Nov. 7. A primary election occurred on Aug. 1 for the At-Large seat. Primaries for Districts 3 and 4 were canceled. 


In Idaho, recall elections against Zone 4 representative Keith Rutledge and Zone 2 representative Susan Brown, members of the West Bonner County School District school board in Idaho, are being held on Aug. 29. The recall effort began when the board voted 3-1 to reject curriculum it had previously endorsed because of concerns about social emotional learning. Click here to read the recall petitions and Rutledge’s and Brown’s responses. 

Three members of the Temecula Valley Unified School District Board of Education are facing a recall effort from One Temecula Valley Political Action Committee, an organization that says it was formed “in response to a very real and dangerous threat to local governance posed by political and religious extremist views.” The recall effort comes less than a month after the board members voted against adopting a textbook for elementary school students. The vote garnered attention across the state and country, including from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other state officials.

Temecula Valley Unified School District is the 32nd largest school district in California, with an estimated enrollment of about 28,000 students.

There was an average of 34 recall efforts against an average of 80 school board members each year between 2009 and 2022. A total of 19.6% of the school board members included in the efforts faced recall elections, and 10% of school board members were removed from office. So far in 2023, we’ve tracked 36 efforts against 66 officials. Click here to see more of the school board recall elections we’ve covered.  

On May 22, the Temecula Valley Unified School District board voted 3-2 against adopting a new social studies textbook for use in the district’s 18 elementary schools. The textbook, published by the Teachers Curriculum Institute (TCI), is one of four supported by the State Board of Education. Board members Joseph Komrosky, Jennifer Wiersma, and Danny Gonzalez voted against adopting the curriculum, while Allison Barclay and Steven Schwartz voted in favor of doing so. 

Komrosky and Gonzalez said they did not agree with the mentions of Harvey Milk in the textbook’s supplemental materials. They both called Milk a pedophile in reference to a report that Milk had a relationship with a 16-year-old when he was 33.

Wiersma said the process of choosing a textbook did not have enough input from parents, citing California Education Code § 51100, which states: “Family and school collaborative efforts are most effective when they involve parents and guardians in a variety of roles at all grade levels, from preschool through high school.”

Weirsma also said: “When I look at the TCI [Teachers Curriculum Institute] curriculum, I don’t see American exceptionalism. I don’t see all the things we need to see. We are going to hit the standards, but if we are totally going to utilize TCI, we need to talk about bias. I don’t see a fair and balanced viewpoint. I don’t see the civics.”

The district had previously been using a textbook that was out of compliance with the FAIR Act, a 2011 state law requiring districts to teach the history of, among other subjects, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.”

The One Temecula Valley Political Action Committee PAC served the three members on June 13. The PAC said: “We understand that the chaos created by these board members has caused concern and frustration within our community. Therefore, we are taking action to ensure that our schools can move forward in a positive direction.”

Recall supporters must collect signatures equal to 10% to 30% of registered voters depending on the jurisdiction’s population and have 40 to 160 days to do so depending on the size of the jurisdiction.

On June 7, Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) issued a statement asking the board for more information about why they rejected the textbook. Newsom said, “California is closely watching the actions of malicious actors seeking to ban books, whitewash history, and demonize the LGBTQ+ community in Temecula and across the state. If the law is violated, there will be repercussions.” 

The board reviewed the textbooks again on July 18 and again voted 3-2 to reject them. After the second vote, Newsom announced the state would fine the district $1.5 million for violating state law and send it copies of the textbook, charging an additional $1.6 million to cover shipping. 

On July 21, the board voted 4-0 to approve the new curriculum. The vote also postponed one lesson for fourth graders pending further review. Wiersma and Komrosky voted with the other members of the board to approve the curriculum. Gonzalez was absent.

Gonzalez, Wiersma, and Komrosky were elected to four-year terms on the board in November 2022. The Inland Empire Family PAC, which says its goal is to “support conservative candidates who will stand for parental rights,” endorsed all three board members. In December, the board voted 3-2 to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the district, a decision that prompted high school students in the district’s schools to walk out of class. 

Newsom has backed Assembly Bill 1078 (AB 1078), a bill that would require a two-thirds vote for school boards to reject existing curriculum or books. State Rep. Corey Jackson (D) sponsored AB 1078, saying: “AB 1078 is a necessary response to protect our children’s access to diverse perspectives, encourage critical thinking, and promote inclusivity in our schools.”

AB 1078 passed the state Assembly 62-16 (with two absences) on June 30 and is now before the Senate.  

Wiersma said, “If AB 1078 were to become law, it would use bullying techniques to threaten trustees who make good, but unpopular decisions, for their schools; this is how a democratic republic works.”

The California School Boards Association also opposes AB 1078. Carlos Machado, a legislative advocate for the organization, said, “We think that this is going in the wrong direction and could eventually hurt the district, its programs, employees and the students that are served by the district by withholding funds from the district.”

Produced in association with Ballotpedia

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