MIAMI — A Florida school district canceled a professor’s civil rights history seminar for teachers, citing in part concerns over “critical race theory” — even though his lecture had nothing to do with the topic.
J. Michael Butler, a history professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, was scheduled to give a presentation Saturday to Osceola County School District teachers called “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” which postulates that the civil rights movement preceded and post-dated Martin Luther King Jr. by decades.
He said that he was shocked to learn why the seminar had been canceled through an email Wednesday but that he wasn’t surprised because educators feel increasingly intimidated over teaching about race.
Less than 24 hours before Butler was informed of the cancellation, a state Senate committee advanced legislation Tuesday at the behest of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to block public schools and private businesses from making people feel “discomfort” when they’re taught about race. DeSantis also wants to empower parents to sue schools that teach critical race theory.
“There’s a climate of fear, an atmosphere created by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that has blurred the lines between scared and opportunistic,” Butler said in a phone interview.
“The victims of this censorship are history and the truth,” Butler said. “The end game is they’re going to make teaching civil rights into ‘critical race theory,’ and it’s not.”
A spokeswoman for DeSantis, Christina Pushaw, denied the allegation and pointed out that DeSantis had nothing to do with the local Osceola County controversy — one of the most tangible examples of how the debate over critical race theory has reached public schools in Florida.
“Critical Race Theory and factual history are two different things. The endless attempts to gaslight Americans by conflating the two are as ineffective as they are tiresome,” she said in an email. “So just to be clear, mixing up ‘teaching history’ with ‘teaching CRT’ is dishonest.”
Between local classrooms and the halls of the state Capitol, public school administrators have been left to navigate tricky education politics intensified by state and national forces.
DeSantis — an early opponent of what he called critical race theory, or CRT, who also fined school districts over Covid mask mandates — is running for re-election and is widely seen as a 2024 GOP presidential contender. Although there’s scant evidence that CRT is taught in Florida public schools, DeSantis pushed the state school board to bar it anyway and then called on legislators to enshrine it in state statute during the lawmaking session that began two weeks ago.
Other potential Republican White House hopefuls, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have also crusaded against CRT and school mask mandates, issues that helped propel Glenn Youngkin to the governor’s mansion in Virginia last year.
CRT was developed in the 1980s as a graduate-level academic framework to highlight and quantify the impacts of structural racism, including disparities among Black people and white people in policing and prosecution. It was rarely something likely to be discussed in a high school classroom.
But the term has often been misapplied as a shorthand for the notion that white guilt was being taught in K-12 schools in lessons about slavery, civil rights and discrimination, all core elements of the nation’s story long before the advent of critical race theory in law and graduate schools.
The debate over the teaching of racial history in education began to boil over in 2020 amid parental unrest over Covid lockdowns, distance learning for children and “anti-racism” trainings. And last year, organizations like the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which produces model bills for Republican causes, held webinars that warned that teaching what they called critical race theory in schools is un-American.
At the local level, school board members like Terry Castillo in Osceola County said she has gotten unprecedented attention from parents over the debate.
“School districts in Florida are in a precarious position as we navigate the anti-CRT administrative order which has little guidance yet promises to have strong consequences if not implemented,” she said in a written statement that pointed out how “school boards have been punished for going against the governor’s orders regarding mask mandates.”
Castillo said she was initially unaware that Butler’s seminar had been canceled and that she was informed by the school district’s superintendent, Debra Pace, that the administration initially wanted to postpone it because of concerns about the spread of Covid.
But as the discussion intensified in Tallahassee, Castillo said, Pace also became concerned about the particulars of Butler’s lecture about the history of civil rights.
According to an email Pace sent Wednesday to “social science educators” scheduled to attend the event, a copy of which was shared by Butler and independently verified by NBC News, the school district wanted a committee to review his presentation.
“I’m sorry we are unable to offer the planned professional development,” Pace wrote.
“We needed an opportunity to review them prior to the training in light of the current conversations across our state and in our community about critical race theory,” she continued, saying the district had received only a summary document of his presentation.
“I am mindful of the potential of negative distractions if we are not proactive in reviewing content and planning its presentation carefully,” Pace wrote, adding that the seminar couldn’t be immediately rescheduled because of other conflicts.
Pace didn’t respond to a request for comment in writing, nor did she provide an original copy of her email as requested. She didn’t dispute the copy furnished by Butler.
Butler said he hadn’t shared his full presentation with the school district. In the presentation, which he provided to NBC News, Butler doesn’t mention the theory, nor structural racism or anti-racism.
Butler said he learned why the presentation was canceled from the email, which was forwarded to him by one of the teachers who had been signed up to attend. The teacher locked his or her Twitter account out of fear of being exposed for speaking out.
Grace Leatherman, the executive director of the National Council for History Education, or NCHE, a national nonprofit group, said that her organization sponsors a seminar program in partnership with the county district and that it is funded through a grant with the Education Department.
She said in an email that the organization was informed Wednesday that the seminar couldn’t take place because the materials had to be reviewed. She added that the seminar was part of the series her organization is doing in the district and that it couldn’t be moved.
“The district clarified that the event could be held later subject to editing of materials. NCHE will not continue with this event, but does look forward to continuing our long-standing commitment to Osceola County teachers,” Leatherman said.
In a subsequent phone interview, Leatherman said that while the cancellation wasn’t due to the district’s request to edit material, “simply, obviously, we don’t want our presenters to need to feel they need to edit or self-edit their work.”
“We don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said.
Butler said a council employee also informed him that local administrators felt the topic had set off CRT “red flags” at the school district. Leatherman said the district told NCHE the seminar could not take place because Butler's materials needed to be reviewed, but could be held at a later date subject to editing — logistically, however, it was not feasible for the NCHE to reschedule.
Butler said: This is all fact-based instruction. This is not theory-based. This is not indoctrination.”
Butler said he believes that the legislation being debated in Tallahassee is too vague and that it “makes it so that any topic that falls under the rubric can be labeled as potentially critical race theory.“
“And the end result is that any teacher training any educational program can be canceled, postponed, stonewalled so that it never happens,” he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., said in a text message that the law wouldn’t really prohibit teaching critical race theory; rather, he said, it would prescribe “the teaching of accurate and objective history on all the topics listed.”
“I think part of the confusion” over teaching basic civil rights history “is the confusion that has been created about what is or isn’t CRT,” Diaz said.
Marc Caputo reported from Miami, and Teaganne Finn reported from Washington, D.C.