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There is no such thing as a “friendly warning” from a Republican legislator to a Florida school board. There is only a warning.
During last week’s meeting between Palm Beach County’s legislative delegation and school board members, State rep. Rick Roth said, “This is a little bit exciting what I’m fixing to say.” Actually, it was more than a little bit intimidating.
Is there “material or teacher training,” Roth asked Superintendent Mike Burke, on critical race theory. He asked the same question about “gender fluidity.”
To the first question, Burke responded, “We teach history — all of it.” To the second, “We teach tolerance.”
Randy Schultz is a Sun Sentinel columnist. (Mike Slaughter / Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
“I am very glad to hear that,” Roth said. But then he added, “I don’t totally know why you’re saying that.”
Perhaps because it’s true. Only colleges — generally law schools — teach critical race theory. In June, the Florida Board of Education banned something that doesn’t exist — the teaching of critical race theory in state elementary and secondary schools.
Roth, who owns a sugarcane and vegetable farm in Belle Glade, pushed on. “I want you to understand,” he told Burke, “that parents are paying attention. Legislators are paying attention.”
Indeed. In Florida and elsewhere, Republicans want to portray traditional public school teachers and school administrators as police-defunding socialists who want to make white children feel guilty about race and strip away their freedom by forcing them to wear masks.
Manufacturing such grievances comes naturally to the Gloomy Old Party. The more Roth spoke, the less friendly his “friendly warning” sounded.
“I have friends,” Roth said, “who are making freedom of information requests.” They are “requesting books, requesting material.”
Then Roth called Burke a liar. Regarding the superintendent’s responses, Roth said, “I want to see it in writing. What people say is going on means nothing to me.”
This is the new McCarthyism in Florida: “Do you now, or have you ever taught, critical race theory?”
State Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat, pushed back. “It’s pretty shocking to accuse” Burke of something that “can’t be defined. You don’t have examples.”
Roth said, “I do have examples. Just not for today.”
Of course. An indictment with no charges. I left two voicemails at Roth’s office, hoping to hear those “examples.” No one responded.
Though Burke remained respectful, he didn’t cower. Of critical race theory, he said, “Let’s not let people throw out a term to get people excited.”
Roth voted for the GOP political statement that is Florida’s new anti-science COVID-19 bill. It makes Florida an anti-vaccine state and prohibits school districts from requiring masks. The vote came as COVID-19 cases among children are rising.
Punishing school districts for stressing safety, however, isn’t enough. Gov. DeSantis has vowed support for school board candidates who supposedly will purge critical race theory, which DeSantis claims “teaches kids to hate each other and to hate our country.”
Despite the Board of Education’s action, state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has filed a bill that would ban Florida schools, colleges and universities from teaching, among things, that “a member of any race is inherently racist.”
Given the wording, schools might not be able to teach the history of Jim Crow. They certainly couldn’t discuss whether Florida’s system of civil rights restoration or its new voting law are vestiges of that era.
Fine is one of the state’s most practiced education demagogues. A Brevard County School Board member has accused him of “cyberstalking” because Fine disagrees with her policies. Fine called the board member “a fraud.”
Burke acknowledged the obvious about critical race theory. “We are going to hear about this until November,” he said. “It is a manufactured term to incite and divide us. It’s a way to cast doubt” on public education.
Burke added, “I’m not even sure what it is.”
Neither are most of the book-banning Republicans who accuse school districts of teaching it.
Roth asked Burke and the board members not to “look at me like I’m doing something wrong.” Many managers on his farm, Roth noted, are Black.
Florida schools need many things from Tallahassee. They don’t need baseless accusations of academic malpractice.
“Do I know what’s going on in Palm Beach County?” Roth said. “No I do not.” Hold that thought.