Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | May 17, 2022
Two reviewers — one a civics specialist at a conservative Michigan college and the other reportedly a student at the same institution — found possible references to “critical race theory” in two Florida math books, according to state documents.
Hillsdale College has deep ties to Florida’s Republican leaders, with a Hillsdale dean speaking at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ December press conference where the governor announced his “anti-woke” legislation to ban “critical race theory,” or CRT, from public schools.
On April 15, after reviewers evaluated 132 math books, the state announced it had rejected 54 of them, a historic number. The Florida Department of Education claimed many aimed to “indoctrinate” children and expose them to “dangerous and divisive concepts,” such as CRT.
The announcement baffled many educators and left critics of DeSantis convinced the textbooks were part of a political stunt, especially as the state declined to provide specific examples that led to the rejections. As of Friday, 38 once-rejected books have been approved, according to department’s website.
DeSantis’ critics argued that CRT, the concept that racism is embedded in the country’s institutions, hasn’t been taught in public schools and isn’t entwined in math books. They viewed his efforts as ways to limit lessons on slavery, discrimination and other topics related to race.
DeSantis says CRT teaches children to hate America. “We’re going to be making sure that time in school is actually spent learning not just being targets of indoctrination,” he said in December.
The Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on May 5 that only one of about 70 reviewers who evaluated math textbooks for the state complained they found CRT embedded in the books. That reviewer, Chris Allen, is a member of the conservative Moms for Liberty group in Indian River County and wrote that she found CRT in both high school texts she evaluated.
That story was based on reviews of the textbook evaluations the education department released that day.
The Herald reported on Friday that its review of nearly 6,000 pages of textbook evaluations concluded that three people — Allen, Jordan Adams, a Hillsdale employee, and Jonah Apel, a Hillsdale student — suggested CRT might be present in four of the textbooks publishers submitted for Florida’s approval.
Neither Adams nor Apel was as critical of the texts they reviewed as Allen was of the books she evaluated, and, unlike Allen, neither man said they were sure the books violated state rules.
In their initial review of the documents, the Sentinel and Sun Sentinel did not find the evaluations by Adams or Apel cited by the Herald.
That happened because the review files released by the education department appeared to be searchable by keywords, but some of the documents were not, including those two by the Hillsdale employee and student. Other reviews by both men were found, however, and in those they wrote they found no inappropriate lessons.
But in a review of a high school algebra and trigonometry book, Apel wrote: “I found several instances where CRT could be said to be present, albeit usually indirectly.”
In a review of a book for a high school “financial algebra” class, Adams wrote: “The textbook asks about race and gun control, possibly violating the rule’s prohibition on making race the most important factor in societal consideration.”
Both men gave those books a 2 out of 5 for “poor alignment” with the standard prohibiting CRT. As the Sentinel reported May 6, Adams gave another book a 3, for “fair alignment.”
Allen gave the two books she reviewed a 1 out of 5 for “very poor/no alignment.”
One of the books Allen disliked was a precalculus text. Adams also reviewed that book, but he rated it a 5, the highest mark possible meaning “very good alignment” with the state’s prohibition against CRT. “Nothing that violates the rule,” he wrote.
Cassie Palelis, the education department’s press secretary, disputed the Sentinel/Sun Sentinel story on May 6 but did not mention the reviews by the two Hillsdale affiliates. Instead, she said the department assumed that any score below a 5 meant the reviewer found evidence of a prohibited topic — even if the reviewer explicitly noted in the comment field that no such material was found.
Many reviewers who gave 4s, meaning “good alignment” with state rules, indicated the texts contained no objectionable material, with comments such as, “There was no CRT evident,” “No CRT noted,” or “Critical race not discussed.”
In addition to the reviewers’ comments and scores, the department said it made textbook decisions based on public comments made over two weeks in January. The Sentinel has requested but not yet received those comments.
Palelis did not respond this week to questions asking how the two Hillsdale affiliates were chosen to be reviewers.
The department’s “call for reviewers” said it wanted people with “content expertise,” “credentials in the field of Mathematics” and familiarity with the state’s new academic standards. The department also said it wanted teachers with five or more years of experience.
Adams, according to Hillsdale’s website, is a graduate of the college who majored in political science and holds a master’s degree in humanities. He is a former teacher who works for the college’s K-12 education division with a focus on history and Latin.
In an email, Adams confirmed to the Sentinel that he reviewed Florida math books but declined to be interviewed.
Apel, the student, is listed as secretary of the Hillsdale College Republicans, according to the group’s website. He could not be reached for comment. The Herald wrote that he confirmed to the paper that he is a college sophomore.
Adams, Apel and some other reviewers did not do full evaluations of the math books but instead looked at only whether the text left out CRT as required, the review documents showed.
Others reviewers answered pages of questions, such as whether a pre-algebra book met the state standard that required students to “solve real-world problems involving operations with numbers expressed in scientific notation.”
The education department did not respond to questions about why some reviewers looked for CRT.
Hillsdale hosted former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who was in office when the textbook rejections were announced, as a speaker last year. During that speech, Corcoran said then he wanted to “keep all of the crazy liberal stuff out” of Florida’s classrooms.
Matthew Spalding, a Hillsdale dean and government professor, shared the stage with DeSantis at his December “anti-woke” press conference.
“I’m very happy to be working with this governor on education,” he said.