Florida’s state education officials have made civic literacy a joke

May 25, 2020 7:00 am

A flag flies near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 18. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Andy Tuck, Marva Johnson, Ben Gibson, Tom Grady, Michael Olenick, Ryan Petty, and Joe York disgraced themselves two weeks ago.  And they disgraced the offices they hold.

They are the members of Florida’s State Board of Education, appointed positions that do not really require any expertise in education, as they amply demonstrated on the morning of May 13 when, with nary a question or a comment, they approved a controversial new rule about civic literacy requirements.

In fact, the only person to speak out against what the board was doing was my attorney, Tom Crapps, who had previously warned them that their action would violate Florida statutes, and besides that, was just plain wrong.

FL State Board of Education chairman Andy Tuck. Credit. Screenshot, Florida Channel.

They cut him off, just as he was getting warmed up. No matter.  No problem.  The board zipped through the rule before I could even finish my coffee.

If you have a student enrolled at Florida State University, Tallahassee Community College (TCC), Florida A & M University or other colleges, or in high school anywhere else in Florida, he or she is required to “demonstrate competency in civic literacy,” under legislation passed by the Florida Legislature in 2017.

Civic literacy means an understanding of history and how government works, and people my age are worried that people their age, who are going to run the country sooner instead of later, will be even worse at it than we are.  This is a serious postsecondary requirement that the legislature spent a lot of time debating.

Well, congratulations. Because of the new rule, your student can now meet that civics requirement solely on the basis of a 100-multiple choice question test that Gov. Ron DeSantis euphemistically calls “The Florida Civic Literacy Test,” but which is really an offshoot of the U.S. Immigration Services Naturalization Test.

It contains questions such as, “What did the Declaration of Independence do?” Or, “Who is in charge of the executive branch?”  Your student needs to pass with a D in order to be considered competent concerning this nation’s history and institutions.  No college-level classes needed. Don’t you consider your money well spent?

A small group of us at TCC and other schools around the state have been fighting this for two years.  We have pointed out the lies and obfuscations that the bureaucrats at the Florida Department of Education (DOE) have used in their defense.

No, 16 other states do not allow students to take only the U.S. Citizenship Test or any of its iterations to meet a postsecondary requirement.  That honor now belongs to Florida alone.  Aren’t we proud of our state?

It is not “speculation” and “conjecture,” as DOE wrote me, that a college-student, given a choice between a memorization test in which at least half the questions and answers are available on-line, and taking a history or government course, will choose the test, affecting enrollment, the number of classes, and ultimately teaching jobs.

If I were a student, I’d choose the test, too.

And, oh yes, DOE is quite open that it would have no problem if all 100 test questions and answers are available on-line. It somehow seems to think that it will give students “access to the expectations for demonstrating civic literacy competency.”  Ya think?  The purpose, you see, is not to educate your student, but to claim that he or she is educated.

I feel badly for the college and university students, who are begging that their love of the study of history and government not be cheapened in the age of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and Workforce Development.

I think I feel sorriest of all for Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at a State Board of Education meeting earlier this year. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel

Three years ago, I watched on TV at the very end of the legislative session when then-Speaker of the House Corcoran, through sheer force of will, made sure that the civic literacy requirement made it into the omnibus education bill.

At TCC, people were high-fiving each other.  One of our former deans, a lifelong Democrat, ran down the hall yelling, “At last a Republican I could support for Governor!”  (Corcoran had considered a run for governor in 2018 but dropped out).

We truly believed that Corcoran had good intentions.

Now, the man who made civic literacy has seen his agency make it a joke.

So, now the rule, governing state colleges, and the regulation, governing state universities, align.  It is uniform across the board—to the detriment of your student.

Why, you might ask, did no state college or university stand up and be counted in this? Nobody in the administration of TCC, for example, would listen to us.

If you want to understand the real attitude toward this test all you have to do is read TCC President Jim Murdaugh’s statement (reported in the Florida Politics) at a “virtual education event” held by The Southern Group, one of the most powerful lobbying firms in Tallahassee.

“Life is an open book test,” Murdaugh said. “Why are we so concerned about the way we go about assessments?”

We all know why, of course:  Complete an entire postsecondary requirement by taking an on-line multiple choice test, and you can cut teachers.  It’s great for the bottom line.

Then there’s just plain gutlessness: fear of DOE and its budget-making process; fear of the agency that regulates them.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another,” said the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, when he took on U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954.

Wanna bet?

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Bob Holladay
Bob Holladay

Bob Holladay moved to Tallahassee in October 2000, just in time for the Presidential election. He should have gotten the message. He graduated from Vanderbilt University, and FSU, and for 25 years was a journalist in Tennessee. These days, he normally writes about books. He has taught American History at Tallahassee Community College for 13 years. He is also president of the Tallahassee Historical Society.