Florida rejects math textbooks over ‘prohibited topics’

Turlington Education Building as seen from Tallahassee Civic Center | source: Urban Tallahassee

Several math textbooks proposed for use in Florida public schools were rejected for containing “prohibited topics” and “unsolicited strategies” believed by the state to promote social-emotional learning (SEL), an educational method that strives to boost social and emotional skills, and critical race theory (CRT), an academic concept that analyzes and critiques racial disparities in American legal systems and policies.

Key Players

The Florida Department of Education governs public education, manages the funding of school boards across the state, and is led by commissioner Richard Corcoran. As part of a 2003 amendment to the state constitution, the State Board of Education was formed, consisting of seven members (including the commissioner) appointed by the governor to direct Florida’s public K-12, community college, and state college education.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the 46th governor of Florida, inaugurated in 2019, has advocated for legislation that would ban CRT and curb LGBTQ+ tolerance in Florida schools. Once strongly backed by former President Donald Trump as a leading voice in the Republican Party, DeSantis has been viewed as a strong potential rival to him for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, should one or both run. 

Big Ideas Learning, LLC, an educational publisher based in Erie, Pennsylvania, publishes mathematics textbooks and instructional technology resources.

Further Details

On April 15, 2022, the Florida Department of Education announced the state had rejected 54 of the 132 proposed math textbooks for use in public school, citing the books were either “impermissible” with Florida’s new standards or contained “prohibited topics,” including references to CRT, inclusions of Common Core, and “unsolicited” additions of social-emotional learning. 

The highest number of rejected books were for grades K-5. 

Acquired by CNN, a list of textbooks that did not meet state criteria showed eight different publishers had their submissions rejected for referencing such topics. According to the Education Commission of the States, fewer than half of states approve textbooks at the state level, as others rely on schools or local agencies. 

Florida did not immediately share any information about the specific content it had objected to. According to The New York Times, several of the textbook publishers said they have not yet received documents describing why their submissions were rejected.

The Times reviewed 21 of the rejected books by using online sample materials provided to Florida school districts by publishers. Per the samples, there was little that touched on race, but many of the textbooks included SEL content. 

One math textbook, created and proposed by Big Ideas Learning, had a diagram labeled “Support for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)” and noted skills that the curriculum helps students develop, including self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship building. 

“Students tap into rich characters, relationships, and emotions with Math Musicals,” the proposed diagram reads. In one example, cartoon animals help build a character’s confidence to cross a wobbly bridge. In another, cartoon animals befriend a dog movie star who feels lonely. 

In the 1990s, the SEL method was crafted by education nonprofit The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, over a dozen states have legislation mandating SEL in grade schools. Meanwhile, more conservative groups and lawmakers across the country have claimed CRT is also embedded into public education.

The textbook rejections came amid the signing of controversial state legislation. 

On March 28, 2022, DeSantis signed a law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, that prohibits the instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation from grades K-3. Critics say the bill also poses threats to mental health services for students, as it could force schools to disclose sensitive information to parents, such as an LGBTQ student wanting their sexuality to be kept confidential. 

On April 22, 2022, DeSantis signed H.B. 7, the “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibits instruction that individuals are inherently oppressive, privileged, or oppressed based on their identity, or that a person bears responsibility and must feel distress over actions committed in the past by members of the same identity, Time reported. The law characterizes these kinds of lessons or ideas as discrimination.

In February 2020, DeSantis removed Common Core concepts, nationally established reading and mathematics educational targets, from Florida’s curriculum. In June 2021, DeSantis banned the teaching of CRT in Florida classrooms altogether, The Associated Press reported.


Governor, Florida Education Association comment on the rejections

According to The Times, at a news conference on April 18, 2022, DeSantis criticized the SEL content included in some of the rejected textbooks, saying, “Math is about getting the right answer,” and “we want kids to learn to think so they get the right answer. It’s not about how you feel about the problem.” 

He added in a statement, “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.”

On April 22, 2022, Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, a statewide, 150,000-member federation of teacher and educator labor unions, released a press release condemning H.B. 7, writing that the bill was based on a “manufactured political narrative” and that parents and educators want students to “grow into well-informed, successful adults who are equipped to think for themselves. The full, fair facts of history are part of a high-quality education.” 

Spar also called attention to vacancies in Florida public schools, arguing staffing was more important than debating how topics should be taught.