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Florida education commissioner skips forum on criticized Black history standards

Miami-Dade County resident Cheryll Collins Small speaks during an education town hall regarding the state's newly adopted curriculum standards on African-American history at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (D.A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Leaders of a forum on Florida's new standards for teaching Black history encouraged parents to let their discontent be heard by showing up at local school board meetings, sending feedback to the state's Department of Education and voting.

Hundreds of lawmakers, teachers and parents crowded into Antioch Baptist Church in Miami Gardens on Thursday night to discuss the new policy, which has drawn harsh criticism for requiring teachers to instruct middle-school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

But Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, the person responsible for overseeing the new standards, wasn't in attendance.

Diaz, a former area high school teacher in Miami-Dade County, had previously agreed to attend, according to organizers. His participation was advertised on fliers publicizing the event, which was sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones. A chair even was set up for him with a placard bearing his name.

Diaz, who who was appointed commissioner last year by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, said on social media that “there was nothing sudden” about his inability to attend the town hall meeting. He said he told Jones last week he would be visiting schools to welcome back teachers and students. Thursday was the first day of school across many parts of Florida.

But Fedrick Ingram, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, called Diaz out.

“First, let me address the elephant in the room,” Ingram told the cheering crowd. “Manny Diaz is a coward. Ron DeSantis knew that this was going on. Manny Diaz knew that this was going on, and they both know how important this is for the Black community. They know they should’ve been here tonight to face you.”

Anthony Durden, a local activist and minister from Miami Gardens, called the new standards disrespectful and insensitive. He said the only way to move forward was with “honest dialogue” but that students were being deprived of that.

“To say that Blacks benefited from slavery is insane,” Durden said.

Miami-Dade school board member Steve Gallon III also urged parents to teach their children at home about the horrors of slavery.

“My prayer is this becomes a catalyst for a movement,” he said.

The meeting took place in a historic Black church in Miami Gardens, where two-thirds of the population is African American, according to the U.S. Census. The crowd's attitude toward the new standard was mostly negative.

Jones, the state senator, said he would set up a group to study the standards, and asked audience members to sign up.

DeSantis, who is seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, has repeatedly defended the new language while insisting that his critics, who include Vice President Kamala Harris and two leading Black Republicans in Congress, are intentionally misinterpreting one line of the sweeping curriculum.

Harris, the nation’s first Black vice president, traveled to Florida last month to condemn the curriculum. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the chamber’s sole Black Republican and is also seeking the White House, also issued a direct rebuke of DeSantis.

Critics said the new school standards are the latest in a series of attacks on Black history by the governor's administration. At the beginning of the year, DeSantis’ administration blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools, saying it was contrary to state law.

DeSantis also has pushed through the “ Stop WOKE Act,” a law that limits discussions on race in schools and by corporations, and banned state universities from using state or federal money for diversity programs.

Karen Thompson, a school counselor who attended the town hall meeting, called the new standards “really absurd and heart-wrenching.” Thompson said she hoped they will be rescinded this year since she believed they were motivated by politics and racism. And she described Diaz’s reason for being absent as “a poor excuse.”

“My question to Governor DeSantis is, ‘Why suddenly all of these attacks on Black history?’ I think it’s absurd because slavery was in no way a good thing,” Thompson said. “Education should be about the truth.”

Daniel Kozin, The Associated Press

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