‘Educational gag orders’: PEN America criticizes Florida’s math textbook rejections

Library stacks of books and bookshelf.
The number of math books nixed by the Florida Department of Education is the most in Florida’s history.

PEN America is slamming the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for eliminating 41% of submitted K-12 math materials considered “impermissible” due to new standards, or for containing “prohibited topics.”

Corcoran approved the restrictive list on Monday, announcing that Florida is initially not including 54 of the 132 (41%) submitted math textbooks on the state’s adopted list. The number of math books rejected by the FDOE in the new list is the most in Florida’s history, according to a news release sent out by the Department.

PEN America, which works to defend free expression, labeled the mass rejection as part of a multipronged effort to “undermine faith in public education.”

“The Florida Department of Education’s rejection of 41% of math textbooks submitted to the state — including 71% of textbooks for grades K-5 — on the grounds that they include ‘references to critical race theory’ or ‘social emotional learning’ demonstrates how broadly ‘educational gag orders’ can be wielded against a range of educational materials, and raises serious concerns about whether these decisions are being made based on pedagogy or politics,” said Jeremy Young, PEN America’s senior manager of the Free Expression and Education program.

When the FDOE reviewed the submitted materials to create the approved list, the department rejected textbooks that included references to critical race theory (CRT), included Common Core or featured the unsolicited addition of social-emotional learning (SEL) in mathematics, according to a news release from the department.

The highest number of books rejected were for K-5 grade levels, where 71% of submitted materials were deemed inappropriate under Florida standards. For middle school grade levels, Grades 6-8, 20% of materials were rejected. For high school levels, Grades 9-12, 35% of textbooks were axed.

The Department offered a breakdown of why the books were rejected — 21%, or 28 textbooks, were not included because they “incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including CRT”; 9%, or 12 books, were not included because they do not properly align to Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (BEST) Standards; and 11%, or 14 books, do not align with standards and incorporate prohibited topics.

Despite the large number of books excluded, the Department assured that every core mathematics course and grade is covered with at least one textbook.

“The rejections come in the midst of a multipronged effort to undermine faith in public schooling, and invoke terms that have become buzzwords for justifying censorship, but which remain vague and ill-defined,” Young continued.

“Math textbooks’ merit should be evaluated in terms of how effectively they help students learn mathematical concepts. Questions remain about the grounds for these rejections, and whether these removals are really about scoring political points.”

The news of the banned textbooks comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a measure that makes it easier for parents to challenge books and instructional materials they don’t approve of.

Supporters of the legislation say it allows parents to be involved in their children’s education. But opponents argue it opens the door to massive book bans. Of note, Florida has the third-largest number of school book ban incidents in the country.

“It seems that some publishers attempted to slap a coat of paint on an old house built on the foundation of Common Core, and indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism, especially, bizarrely, for elementary school students,” DeSantis said in a previous statement. “I’m grateful that Commissioner Corcoran and his team at the Department have conducted such a thorough vetting of these textbooks to ensure they comply with the law.”

However, opponents are pushing back following the approved textbook list announcement. Orange County Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani took to Twitter to express her concern over the significant number of textbook rejections.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida Republican leaders are preparing to ban algebra from high schools. They object to the subliminal use of [brackets] as an indoctrination to the concept of inclusion, they don’t like the equal sign, and they hate solving problems,” she wrote in a tweet.

Although not included on the state’s initial adopted list, publishers have the ability to appeal any non-adoption decision. Publishers also have the ability to substitute or revise submitted bids to be included on the state’s adopted list if the substitution or revision of submitted instructional materials ultimately meets Florida’s bid specifications.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected]



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