LIFESTYLE

Florida education commissioner skips forum on criticized Black history standards

Aug 10, 2023, 5:33 PM | Updated: 6:34 pm

A placard for Commissioner Many Diaz is seen, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Miami Garden, Fla. Lawmake...

A placard for Commissioner Many Diaz is seen, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Miami Garden, Fla. Lawmakers, teachers, school board members and parents crowded into a South Florida church Thursday evening for a forum on Florida's new standards for teaching Black history. But one person who didn't attend after previously RSVPing was on the minds of most participants — Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, the man responsible for overseeing the standards. (AP Photo/Daniel Kozin)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Daniel Kozin)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Hundreds of lawmakers, teachers, school board members and parents crowded into a South Florida church Thursday evening for a forum on Florida’s new standards for teaching Black history, which have 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 one person who wasn’t in attendance was Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz — the man responsible for overseeing the standards.

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

Diaz, a former Florida lawmaker 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 at Antioch Baptist Church in Miami Gardens, where two-thirds of residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“As I told the senator last week, I will be visiting schools throughout the state to welcome back students, parents and teachers for the first day of school,” Diaz said.

Most districts in Florida had their first day of school on Thursday.

Before the town hall meeting got underway, 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.

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.”

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Florida education commissioner skips forum on criticized Black history standards