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DeSantis takes an anti-CRT victory lap without showing his math

Middle school students at Vassal Lane Upper School work on an assignment in teacher Gabriela Tucker's classroom in Cambridge, Mass. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)
6 min

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) appeared on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning to receive praise for her state’s latest contribution to the political right’s struggle against its perception of how America is changing. As she spoke, on-screen text summarized that victory: “FL DEPT OF EDUCATION REJECTS TEXTBOOKS WITH CRT.”

CRT, of course, is shorthand for critical race theory, an academic regimen that became a focus of conservative attention as activists figured out that it was a potent way of criticizing discussions of race, particularly in schools. That the term has a specific meaning from which most of those critiques deviated was beside the point — or more accurately, was irrelevant to the point as people like right-wing activist Christopher Rufo made clear.

What happened in Florida, though, is perhaps the quintessential deployment of CRT as a right-wing bugaboo. The state rejected a number of math textbooks and issued a news release citing critical race theory as a rationale for at least some of those rejections — and then didn’t bother to demonstrate how those books actually incorporated critical race theory.

All of the political benefit; none of the administrative legwork.

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“What we’ve seen is obviously a systematic attempt by these publishers to infiltrate our children’s education by embedding topics such as critical race theory, things that have nothing to do with math,” Nuñez said. A broad allegation but one for which Rachel Campos-Duffy, the show’s host, declined to demand any evidence.

“So they were seeing, like, math problems that have gender issues involved and CRT in it,” Campos-Duffy said. As a matter of fact, not as a question.

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If you’re curious what that means — what a math problem with “critical race theory in it” would look like — you’re not alone. I contacted the Florida Department of Education to ask, without receiving any response. I contacted several publishers of books that were rejected by the state to see if they’d received any guidance about the reason for being rejected, and have not yet heard back.

It’s worth noting, though, that most of those publishers who had books rejected also had books that were accepted by the state. You can compare the two yourself; the lists of respondents to the state’s bid for providing math textbooks and the list of approved books are both online. So, for example, we see that “HMH Florida’s B.E.S.T. Go Math!” textbook from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was turned down, but its “HMH Florida’s BEST Into Math” book was accepted. (BEST is a reference to the state’s “Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking” educational standards.) This both indicates that the company would not be particularly eager to criticize a state that is poised to buy thousands of its books — but also, contrary to Nuñez’s point, that publishers aren’t “systematically” trying to “infiltrate” schools with critical race theory. Unless, of course, HMH’s deployment of critical race theory in the latter book was so sneaky that it even managed to evade Florida’s adept CRT censors.

What’s interesting is that the state’s initial news release doesn’t even allege that critical race theory was a significant component of what it rejected.

“The approved list followed a thorough review of submissions at the Department, which found 41 percent of the submitted textbooks were impermissible with either Florida’s new standards or contained prohibited topics — the most in Florida’s history,” the release said in its introductory paragraph. “Reasons for rejecting textbooks included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core, and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.”

Then, a bit lower, there’s a note that 28 of the 132 submitted books ″are not included on the adopted list because they incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including CRT.” Another 14 were rejected because they both incorporated those “prohibited topics” and didn’t meet BEST standards. The number that actually included critical race theory then? Who knows? Just take the governor’s word for it.

“It seems that some publishers attempted to slap a coat of paint on an old house built on the foundation of Common Core,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in a quote from the news release, “and indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism, especially, bizarrely, for elementary school students.”

DeSantis’s enthusiastic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, defended her boss’s stated rationale by sharing examples on social media — not of critical race theory in a Florida math book, mind you, but of a worksheet handed out in a math class in Missouri that wasn’t part of the school’s curriculum.

You’ll notice that, with the exception of Maya Angelou being Black, this is a reflection not of critical race theory but of a questionable choice by the worksheet’s creator. (It has been updated.) Later, she retweeted Rufo, who’d shared a pastiche of article titles to convey the idea that critical race theory had “been embedded into math education.” Most of the titles came from the same academic book.

Marc Caputo, an NBC reporter with deep roots in Florida, spoke to a Department of Education official who suggested the specific details of why books were rejected might not be public while the decision is being appealed by publishers. But, of course, that didn’t stop the state and its governor from trying to capitalize on the idea that he was striking a solid blow against the nefarious spread of critical race theory. It didn’t stop his lieutenant governor from claiming on national television that publishers were injecting CRT intentionally to influence young children.

Keen observers will note that this is the story of the anti-CRT push broadly. There’s little evidence beyond anecdotes that critical race theory is a component of school curriculums, but that hasn’t prevented the emergence of a vocal cadre of CRT opponents like Rufo. The reward lies in being seen as combating this menace — and that the menace exists is taken on faith.

Perhaps the state will at some future point offer an example of where critical race theory was present in one of the rejected textbooks. That it wants credit for turning away the enemy at the gates without showing there was any enemy in the first place, though, is worth noting.

It’s also worth noting that two-thirds of the publishers that had math books rejected also had math books accepted for use. You can check my math, but that seems to reflect an awfully shoddy attempt to indoctrinate children.