Bob Holladay: Department of Education at war with itself — and us

Corporate seminar for tech entrepreneurs in auditorium. Audience participants in development workshop. Executive manager giving speech at symposium. Business training at university lecture hall.
A civic literacy requirement without any coursework is academically hollow.

This is the third article I have written for Florida Politics about the Department of Education’s attempts to sabotage a meaningful civic literacy requirement in Florida’s colleges and universities.

I keep coming back to it because Gov. Ron DeSantis keeps saying how important it is.

This time the legislature agreed — or almost did — as did Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and, apparently, a coterie of DOE personnel who initiated and supported legislative action.

Too bad the message hasn’t gotten through to the people in charge of drafting rules.

The postsecondary civic literacy requirement, passed in 2017 and encapsulated in Section 1007.25(4) of the Florida Statutes, says that college and university students can meet the requirement in two ways.

One is passing either a U.S. Government or U.S. History class.

The other is by taking “at least one existing assessment” to be listed in rule by DOE and in regulation by the Board of Governors.

The original intention of both was to list four existing tests: the AP History, AP Government, College Level Preparatory (CLEP) Exam, and the U.S. Immigration Services Naturalization Test.

When the legislature’s committee charged with oversight of agency rule-making got wind of the proposed rule, it asked how a test in which all the questions and answers are online at the U.S. Immigration Services website can possibly measure civic knowledge.

DOE withdrew the rule, but only for a little while.

In early 2018, the Board of Governors contracted with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to create a new test, one, in the words of a Frey Institute official, which was to be “as close to the U.S. Immigration Test as possible.”

The Frey Institute eliminated and replaced approximately half the U.S. Immigration Test’s 100 questions, which left the other half, along with their answers, online at the Immigration Services website where they remain today.

Approximately three weeks into the process, the Frey Institute contacted the Board of Governors and strongly recommended against using the new test at the university level on the basis that it was simply not a postsecondary assessment.

The Board of Governors, not subject to legislative oversight, ignored the Frey Institute’s recommendation and adopted the new test in regulation at its May meeting.

The Department of Education announced its intention to adopt the new test in rule for state colleges as well, and scheduled a rule development workshop in Tallahassee.

The workshop turned contentious, largely, but not completely, on the basis that the plain language of Section 1007.25(4) requires that any assessment used to meet the civic literacy requirement had to have been in existence prior to the legislation becoming law (the civic literacy requirement went into effect nearly 10 months before the Board of Governors adopted the Frey Test), that replacing 50 of 100 questions made it a new test, and that having half the questions and answers online made it unsustainable as an accurate measure of civic knowledge.

When DOE published its final rule in April, it only included the AP History, AP Government and CLEP Exams, making it for the last two years different from the Board of Governor’s regulation, with no apparent adverse effects.

Several of us in the history profession have spent the last two legislative sessions meeting with members of the legislature and impressing upon them that a civic literacy requirement without any coursework is academically hollow.

We have proposed various pieces of legislation, and this year we’re on the verge of getting something sponsored and introduced when a bombshell dropped.

Midway through Session the Pre-K-12 House Innovation Subcommittee and Rep. Vance Aloupis introduced HB 7079. The Senate companion, SB 1498, was carried by Sen. Dennis Baxley for Sen. Manny Diaz.

I was told by several members of both bodies that the legislation initiated with Education Commissioner Corcoran and DOE, and that they considered it a priority.

Indeed, at its various committee stops in the House, Jared Ochs, legislative liaison for DOE, was there to support the bill. The legislation was introduced in concert with DeSantis’s reiteration of the importance of civics education.

Most of HB 7079 was about K-12 “Turnaround schools,” but buried deep inside was language that would have amended Section 1007.25(4), F.S., to require that beginning in the upcoming school year each college and university student must demonstrate competency in civic literacy by successfully completing “a civic literacy course and by achieving a passing score on an assessment.”

It is clear that whoever wrote HB 7079 thought so little of the “Frey Test” for college and university students, that they also included language which states that “A student may fulfill the [postsecondary] assessment requirement by earning a passing score on the assessment while in high school …”

The new bill language gave us almost everything we have wanted: required civics coursework at the postsecondary level.

With that, even DeSantis’s repeated statements that he wants every student in Florida to take what is apparently now officially named the “Florida Civic Literacy Test,” but which is unofficially still the “U.S. Immigration Services Naturalization Test with supplemental questions” or the “Frey Test,” would not matter.

Even if students pass it, which is likely given that half the questions and answers are online, and that earning a 60 (a D) is considered passing, they would still have to take the coursework. DeSantis has also made it clear that passing the test in high school is not a requirement for graduation.

HB 7079 passed the House with great bipartisan support.

One day before, Diaz struggled to get his bill to the floor of the Senate before adjournment. However, the Department of Education sent out a notice for a March 27 rule development workshop, in order to add “the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Test — Civics (U.S. History and Government) with supplemental questions, also known as the Florida Civic Literacy Test, as an option by which students can demonstrate civic literacy competency.”

When I spoke to Dr. Carrie Henderson, Executive Vice Chancellor at DOE, who is listed as the contact for the proposed rule development, I assumed DOE was aiming to implement the language of HB 7079, though it had not yet passed the Senate.

Instead, Henderson said that DOE was merely inserting the Frey Test into the rule to make it conform to the Board of Governors regulation, a replay of the controversy from two years ago.

When I asked her if that meant college students would be able to meet the entire requirement by taking this very flawed test, she was evasive. When advised that the rule development language contradicted the language of HB 7079 — which was still alive in the legislature at the time of the conversation — she seemed unaware.

It also became apparent that Henderson and other DOE employees believe that the agency can create as many new tests as they want, as long as one of them was in existence before the civic literacy requirement became effective in July 2017.

However, I have been informed by staff in both chambers of the legislature that they disagree with that interpretation, and DOE’s own general counsel implicitly did not endorse it to me.

Nor have a handful of private attorneys I have consulted.

By the way, HB 7079 died March 13 in the Senate, along with a bunch of other good legislation, including my friend Rep. Ben Diamond’s own civic literacy bill.

I don’t know if it will be back, but given its ringing endorsement in the House, I suspect it will.

But I do know that something smells to high heaven at the Department of Education. Who is behind a rule that is in direct contradiction to legislation that I was told by multiple persons was supported if not initiated by the Commissioner of Education?

And more importantly, what is he going to do about it?

We are in the midst of potentially the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu at the end of World War I. Stores, churches and other institutions are closing. People are fighting over toilet paper. DeSantis wants to close the Florida border.

How should a civil and civically-minded society conduct itself when under stress like that?

This is the essence of being civically literate. And it requires more than memorizing 50 questions and answers sitting on a U.S. government website.


Bob Holladay teaches American History at Tallahassee Community College.

Guest Author


  • John Kociuba

    March 15, 2020 at 9:35 pm

    Dear Citizens ~

    Re: Public Education

    It’s not like the FDLD is holding back all historical knowledge from schools on the electronic data base to be printed and taught for free!

  • Brian Buckley

    March 17, 2020 at 6:01 pm

    With respect to Prof. Holladay’s article, it is clear that the Department of Education bureaucracy is not the least bit concerned with education. It it were, it would not be setting such a low bar for assessing whether college students meet the rather rigorous standards for civic literacy that the legislature has set but which the bureaucrats are determined to avoid.

    It is disappointing to learn that the governor, who while campaigning expressed concern for the lack of knowledge students have about our Constitution, has not raised a hand to help insure that students receive college-level instruction on our system of government. Without serious course work, the DOE is insuring that students will continue to be befuddled by the elegant and necessary constructs of our political system, like the Electoral College, the Amendment process, and the equal representation of the states in the Senate, which express the Founding Fathers’ ideas on the importance of the federal system and the protection of minority interests.

Comments are closed.


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