By Dan M. Berger
Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Florida last month to take a shot at Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the state wanted “to replace history with lies” in how it taught about slavery.
In a July 31 letter, Mr. DeSantis publicly invited her to Florida to discuss it.
“In Florida, we are unafraid to have an open and honest dialogue about the issues,” he wrote to her.
“And you clearly have no trouble ducking down to Florida on short notice. So given your grave concern [which, I must assume, is sincere] about what you think our standards say, I am officially inviting you back down to Florida to discuss our African-American History standards.
“We will be happy to host you here in Tallahassee. I will ask Dr. William Allen—instrumental in the development of our impressive new standards—to join. We welcome you, of course, to bring Randi Weingarten or someone else who shares your view about the standards.
“I am prepared to meet as early as Wednesday of this week, but of course want to be deferential to your busy schedule should you already have a trip to the southern border planned for that day.
“Please let me know as soon as possible. What an example we could set for the nation—a serious conversation on the substance of an important issue! I hope you’re feeling up to it,” he concluded.
In a speech on Aug. 1 in Orlando, Ms. Harris ducked the invitation.
Speaking at the African Methodist Episcopal 20th Women’s Missionary Society Quadrennial Convention, she said, “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, in an attempt to divide and distract our nation with unnecessary debates.
“And now they attempt to legitimize these unnecessary debates with a proposal that most recently came in of a politically motivated roundtable.
“Well, I’m here in Florida. And I will tell you, there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact there were no redeeming qualities of slavery,” she said to thunderous applause.
“And as I said last week, when I was again here in Florida, we will not stop calling out and fighting back against extremist, so-called leaders who try to prevent our children from learning our true and full history,”
In his letter, Mr. DeSantis said that his offered guest, Mr. Allen, is an African-American studies expert who consulted in drawing up the state’s new standards.
He is a former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University, and now a member of Florida’s African-American History Standards Workgroup.
Ms. Weingarten, a former labor lawyer and high school teacher, is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
She, her union, and teachers’ unions generally have been favorite targets of Mr. DeSantis as he has fought to reform public schools, eliminate “wokeness” from their curricula and administration, eliminate tenure, and institute near-universal school choice.
President Joe Biden gave leadership on the southern border—a hot button for Mr. DeSantis, who has promised to send troops to secure it and finish building the border wall— to Ms. Harris in March 2021.
She didn’t visit the border for more than three months after that.
Border reform advocates estimated a year ago that 4.9 million immigrants had already crossed that border illegally during Mr. Biden’s presidency.
How Florida teaches African-American history became a lightning rod for controversy when the state Department of Education in January rejected the College Board’s proposed Advanced Placement African-American Studies curriculum for its inclusion of black queer theory and other topics the state questioned.
“We are committed to teach truth, not partisan narratives,” Mr. DeSantis said in his letter to Ms. Harris.
“We have rooted out hateful Marxist theories like ‘Critical Race Theory’ from our classrooms. We have eliminated ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ initiatives in school administration and hiring practices.
“We have, instead, focused on the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, science, civics, and history.”
The College Board revised and resubmitted its curriculum with minor changes, and the state accepted it.
The latest dispute emerged over a single statement in Florida’s new 216-page curriculum, approved on July 19: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“Adults know what slavery really involved. It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother. It involved some of the worst examples of … depriving people of humanity in our world,” Ms. Harris said last week in a speech that labeled Mr. DeSantis and Florida Republicans generally as “extremists” who “for months have dared to ban books.”
Democrats have relentlessly accused Mr. DeSantis of “book bans,” which he labels a “hoax.”
Florida’s 2022 Parental Rights in Education bill requires age-appropriate teaching of sexuality to younger schoolchildren and gives parents the right to object to titles used in the classroom or school libraries.
Some sexually explicit titles, often books with explicit pictures—regarded by some as pornography—have been pulled from school library bookshelves. No books have been banned in Florida.
“They want to replace history with lies,” Ms. Harris continued, according to the vice president office’s copy of the speech text.
“Middle school students in Florida to be told that enslaved people benefited from slavery. High schoolers may be taught that victims of violence, of massacres were also perpetrators. I said it yesterday. They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not have it.”
The same history curriculum also calls for students to learn the “service and sacrifice” of African patriots, the history of the Underground Railroad, the writings of Africans, the “harsh conditions” of slavery, and other subjects involving African-American history.
Two prominent black Republicans, Mr. DeSantis’s rival for the presidential nomination Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, chimed in against the curriculum’s statement.
Mr. Donalds posted on the X.com social media platform on July 26, “the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong and needs to be adjusted. That obviously wasn’t the goal, and I have faith that FLDOE [the Florida Department of Education] will correct this.”
“There is no silver lining in slavery,” Scott said at a campaign stop outside Des Moines on July 27.
Mr. DeSantis has vigorously defended the state’s approach to teaching about slavery and African-American history in general.
“African-American history is American history,” he has said more than once, and the state requires it to be taught.
“Over the past several weeks, the Biden administration has repeatedly disparaged our state and misinformed Americans about our education system,” Mr. DeSantis wrote to Ms. Harris.
“Our state pushed forward nation-leading standalone African-American History standards—one of the only states in the nation to require this level of learning about such an important subject.”
“One would think the White House would applaud such boldness in teaching the unique and important story of African-American History. But you have attempted to score cheap political points and label Florida parents ‘extremist.’ It’s past time to set the record straight.”