As the nation’s culture wars rage and states like Florida adopt new laws and policies limiting what can be taught about racism in schools, the California reparations task force is set to propose to legislators that they do just the opposite: boost the teaching of African-American studies in the state’s schools.
That means California, whose governor last year signed first-in-the-nation legislation requiring ethnic studies in high school, could also someday adopt African-American studies in its K-12 curriculum — while on the other side of the country, Florida teachers grapple with changes to the education system that they say are affecting student-teacher relationships, and making them question whether they want to keep teaching.
“It is actually essential that [the task force’s recommendations are] happening at this time,” Cheryl Grills, a member of California’s reparations task force, told MarketWatch. “The stance of folks like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis represents an opportunity for deeper reflection as a country about why it’s scary for people to hear facts and truths that don’t align with their world view.”
“Our recommendations for remedy directly counter this movement toward ignorance,” she added. “You can’t fix what you won’t look at.”
Though many California schools teach students some Black history, and hundreds of high schools in the state already offer ethnic studies, what the state’s students have learned has been “uneven,” said Grills and her fellow task-force member Don Tamaki, who both focus on education, among other areas.
“California schools do better than a lot of other states,” Tamaki told MarketWatch. But what is already taught could use some improvement, he added: “There have been a lot of books and studies in [recent] years essentially shining a light on buried history.”
For example, he said, the nine-member task force’s preliminary report shows that even though California was not known to be a slave state, people who moved to the state from elsewhere brought enslaved people with them. The report also shows that California enacted laws and other policies that made the state “plenty complicit” in ensuring that the effects of slavery would reverberate for generations to come, he added.
The task force’s proposal to add African-American studies to primary-education curriculum comes amid ongoing heated debates over ethnic studies, Black studies and critical race theory, and as Republican lawmakers in many states are trying to dictate what schools can teach about racism and inequality. The reparations task force, on the other hand, is pushing for Black studies in California to expand knowledge and understanding of the “cumulative and compounding things we live with today,” Tamaki said.
“‘I commend the holistic approach [the task force is] taking to reparations. It’s not just about a check; it’s about repairing harm, and part of the harm is educational injustice.’”
— Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles
Since releasing a report last year on harms that they say need to be redressed, the reparations task-force members have been refining their recommendations, which are expected to include not just monetary reparations for descendants of enslaved Black people, but also new programs and changes meant to help ensure equity in education and more. The task force’s final report to the California legislature is due this summer.
Its many education-related recommendations also include additional funding for under-resourced school districts; a review of school discipline data; and an expedited timeline for the ethnic-studies requirement, which isn’t set to take effect until the 2029-2030 school year.
“The bigger societal picture is erasure of Black history in particular,” Tamaki said. The history that’s taught in American schools contributes “to a norm and culture where [non-white] lives matter less,” he added.
Florida educators call the law vague and ‘a political stunt’; state says ‘there’s a lot of misconception’
Educators in Florida describe a climate of uncertainty surrounding laws, policies and rhetoric from the governor and other officials. Most recently, DeSantis barred a new Advanced Placement African-American studies course for high schools and has battled with the College Board, the nonprofit group that oversees AP courses. That controversy has reportedly prompted officials in four other states — Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi — to scrutinize the same AP course.
In recent years, Florida teachers have also had to navigate the “Stop WOKE Act,” which, among other things, limits what can be taught about racism in schools and has been blocked by a judge; and a law barring instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics.
Proponents of the Stop WOKE Act, including the governor, have said they aim to prevent what they call “indoctrination” of students and others, saying that teaching about systemic racism can be discriminatory against white people. In the law’s title, “woke” serves as an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.” (The original meaning of the word, Grills noted, was simply “to be informed and aware and having the ability to apply critical analysis.”)
Related: Racial and economic inequality persists. Why do many people deny it?
But there appears to be no uniform approach to enforcement of the education-related laws limiting what is supposed to be taught, according to five Florida educators who teach students from elementary school through college and spoke with MarketWatch. Enforcement depends on the discretion of the school district, school-board members and individual teachers, they said.
DeSantis’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, told MarketWatch in an email that “there’s a lot of misconception about what the Stop WOKE Act does.” Griffin listed from the embattled law what he called “prohibited concepts,” including that “some people are inherently racist; a person must feel guilt or anguish because of their race; and certain virtues are racist or exclusive to a race.”
“The law does not prohibit training where the concepts are merely discussed, as opposed to espoused and inculcated,” he said. When asked who decides whether a concept is “merely discussed,” he did not respond.
Shantel Buggs, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, said nobody from the university’s administration has asked her to change anything she teaches, which includes African-American studies — and she doesn’t intend to change anything.
“The whole point of sociology is studying society,” Buggs said. “A big part of that is studying inequality.”
Some students have told Buggs they are worried about losing services aimed at supporting marginalized individuals, because DeSantis is also targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs, she said. But she has tried to reassure students by telling them any changes would not happen immediately.
“So much would have to be disentangled,” Buggs said. “They have to build infrastructure to enforce it.” The legislature seems to be writing the bills “to be vague,” she added.
See: How to pay for reparations in California? ‘Swollen’ wealth could replace ‘stolen’ wealth through taxes
Corey Ellis, a Florida math teacher who also coordinates his high school’s International Baccalaureate program, an AP alternative, echoed Buggs. “There are no concrete terms,” he said. “I think that vagueness [of the laws] is intentional. … It’s a political stunt.”
Ellis worries that the state’s various laws and policies could affect the school’s IB program. “I can see it limiting the views and goals [we have for IB students], which include open-mindedness, being a thinker and being accepting of others — things that they seem to be trying to put a clamp on,” he said.
Worrying about what the state deems acceptable affects “relationship building” with his students, Ellis added.
“‘I have books that deal with racism. I have the book “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” which is a Newbery Medal winner. Am I supposed to fill out a form about keeping that in my library?’”
— Karyn Colombo, a high-school teacher in Florida
Meanwhile, a third- and fourth-grade teacher in the state — who asked not to be named because she “tries to stay out of politics to help me survive” — said that at her school, there was a weeks-long delay in receiving teaching materials at the beginning of the school year. “The restrictions on reading affected things,” she said.
The teacher, who previously worked in California, also said she teaches more Black history to students in Florida than she did in the Golden State, where her school district did not require her to do so. She has not yet been asked to “deeply go through” her classroom library, though she said she wouldn’t keep anything in there that would be “inappropriate” for her young students. But “I’ve heard some districts have had to pull all their libraries,” she added.
There is proof books are being pulled from shelves for review in some areas in Florida: A substitute teacher in Florida was reportedly fired earlier this month for posting a video of empty bookshelves in a school in the state. DeSantis had told a reporter the video was “a fake narrative,” but a spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools confirmed to the Popular Information newsletter that the books had in fact been removed for review by a media specialist.
Karyn Colombo, a high-school teacher, said she has been asked to fill out a form about the books in her classroom library. But Colombo said she has not gone through the hundreds of books in her classroom, and worries that some of them likely fall under the category “that they would be looking to censor at the state level.”
“I have books that deal with racism,” Colombo said. “I have the book ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,’ which is a Newbery Medal winner. Am I supposed to fill out a form about keeping that in my library?”
All this uncertainty could affect whether people want to enter the teaching profession, she added: “You find yourself looking at the calendar and thinking, ‘What year is it? What country am I in?’”
Meanwhile, Florida middle-school teacher Sonia Harmon said she is waiting to see how the law’s impacts play out. The state government “can ban and block, but children with access to social media are so much more culturally equitable and inclusive than leaders and the older generations,” Harmon said. “They’re able to seek information on their own.”
‘It’s literally American history’
In California, the teaching of Black studies and ethnic studies has so far depended largely on a school’s location and its teachers. But unlike educators in some other states, California teachers are not dealing with the risks of possibly running afoul of the law.
Cole Margen, who teaches history to mostly immigrant kids at Oakland High School, said he already incorporates Black history into his lessons.
“It’s important for any student living in the U.S. to learn Black history,” Margen said, adding that he wished Black history and ethnic studies were incorporated into the American history that’s taught to all high-school students. “There is this narrative that it’s not part of history … but it’s literally American history.”
He said what he was taught about American history while growing up in California did not include much about Latinx history, which he said would have been valuable to him as someone who is Jewish, Mexican and Puerto Rican.
“Even within California, [what students learn] depends on where they are,” Margen said.
Also: Reparations tally could surpass half a million dollars, but task force also wants to change California policies
Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, has advocated for ethnic studies at the K-12 and college levels for years. Those were hard-fought battles, she said, and a statewide requirement for Black studies in K-12 “is now the next battleground.”
“I commend the holistic approach [the task force is] taking to reparations,” Abdullah said. “It’s not just about a check; it’s about repairing harm, and part of the harm is educational injustice.”
Amour Carthy taught African-American history at a Los Angeles public high school in the early 2000s. She now lives in the suburbs in Georgia and said that at the schools in her area, she has “never seen the kinds of books we got to read in California,” where she grew up.
Carthy, who said she didn’t learn much about Black history at the Oakland Catholic school she attended, said her move to public school changed her life. At Vallejo High School, a history teacher gave her pamphlets about African-American history she could read outside of class. She had an English teacher who assigned literature written by Black authors. And the school library was stocked with books about Malcolm X and other icons of Black history, she said. She went on not only to get a master’s degree in African-American studies but to teach it, and continues to work in education today, helping students apply for college.
As for the debates over K-12 and higher education in Florida, “[DeSantis] is a former history teacher,” Carthy said. “He knows the facts.”
Coming up: The California reparations task force’s next meeting is March 3 and 4 in Sacramento.