I am trying to understand how you went from being one of the most progressive, innovative and inclusive superintendents in the history of Flagler County to a shill, as one of two Florida senior chancellors of education, for the single most regressive, reactionary and, frankly, just plain mean state departments of education in the nation. Something isn’t adding up.
This isn’t the Jacob Oliva we knew, unless you’ve placed a bet on Ron DeSantis becoming president and your next nameplate getting laminated in Washington. Even so: has your ambition become so primeval that you’re willing to make these Faustian bargains the way you have on covid safety measures, on gender identity, on sanitized civics and history, and now degrading math textbooks for something as innocuous–if not provably useful–as their social-emotional learning content?
I remember one of your few big stumbles back when you were the principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School. You probably recall how you and Superintendent Janet Valentine at the time agreed to cancel the student production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” 12 years ago. Only one person had raised objections to the play in the community, a clueless member of the Palm Coast City Council who’d objected to the play’s use of the n-word. He fabricated claims that it would be dangerous to stage the play, even though the book was all over your high schools as standard reading, and Harper Lee herself a few years earlier had written pridefully of Flagler County, thanking Mary Ann Clark for making her novel the inaugural title in the annual Flagler Reads Together event. But you went along anyway.
I remember the deer-in-headlights look you had from the angry public reaction and the way Flagler County became a national laughing stock. I saw that look during the appeals committee meeting when you began to backtrack. You eventually made the right decision, the play was staged, there was applause and of course no trouble. The episode suggested you were not dogmatic. You could adapt, and you prized diversity. You then quickly climbed up, enriching the district’s pluralist approach along the way.
You were always political. You wouldn’t have gotten where you were–where you now are–without a little Machiavelli in you. Nobody does. But that’s not what defined you. The work, the ideas, the problem-solving, narrowing achievement gaps, raising scores, imagining new opportunities out of nowhere, like the computer-for-every-student initiative or the flagship programs: that’s what defined you. You even found a new way to recite the Pledge in a flagless pinch. That’s the Oliva we knew. An Oliva who’d have laughed at any intersection of education and ideology. It just didn’t seem to be your game.
And now this. It’s not so much the positions you defend. We all have a right to our beliefs, even to our ideology. No one is asking you to be a liberal, though you certainly were more of one when you were down here. The problem is your willingness to defend the indefensible, to be Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s lackey more than his conscience.
You argued in court that mask mandates made no difference, which was scientifically false. They may have made no significant difference among children, because relatively few got sick. That’s a given. But children were carriers. The masks were intended to keep them from bringing death home to parents and grandparents, which they did: The governor’s happy-faced graffiti on 74,000 graves aside, Florida’s numbers are dismal. You knew that. But you lawyered it in court. If your hands were callused from carrying Corcoran’s water, the Zoom connection didn’t show it.
In Flagler you’d have never put up with anyone sanitizing history books of America’s more sinister past. Now you’re all in with the kind of nationalistic whitewashing Putin is inflicting on Russian students. Your department is endorsing a return to teaching history as selective hero-worship. “Yet what kind of history do you have if you leave out all the bad things?” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asked 30 years ago, when he was worried the liberals were pushing too many feel-good tomes. The answer is simple: propaganda.
In your time here you were all about inclusion. Transgender issues were just then beginning to be discussed at school board association seminars, but the local district’s focus was on acceptance by whatever means. Or am I remembering all those pastoral, collegial school board meetings incorrectly? Now your department is pushing purposefully mercenary assaults on LGBTQ students to placate the evangelical wing of your party. You are defending outright harm and second-class status to a suicide-prone segment of the students you should be protecting, and used to. Your department is throwing fuel on any fire it can.
Just last week your department pulled off that Orwellian ploy of throwing out dozens of math books from the list public schools could choose from on claims that they indoctrinated students with critical race theory or so-called social emotional learning. Four measly examples aside, the department never showed how or why the books are a problem. Here was your department, barely a few weeks ago touting transparency with school books–giving parents the right to examine every book, every page, every brochure–now hiding outright censorship behind the preposterous claim that these math books used in thousands of schools have proprietary information.
Claims that the books contain “critical race theory” are too laughable to entertain. But they do contain social-emotional learning, which has been around for years, has been proven to help raise test scores, and resonates with common sense, if not common decency.
The New York Times managed to analyze a lot of content from the books your department rejected, finally giving us a glimpse of the horrors you’re protecting our kids from. Are you really telling us, Jacob, that a math book giving a child a little pointer about “disagreeing respectfully” with a wrong answer is indoctrination? That asking a young child to write a “math biography,” maybe to reveal that math makes us a bit anxious, somehow harms that child? (I wish I’d had the chance to do that in my day instead of trembling through math class.)
Do you really agree that, as the governor so cynically put it, math is not about feelings? That it’s a back-door to critical race theory, as Chris Rufo, the inquisitor who almost single-handedly fabricated the CRT hysteria now claims, though it’s been made very clear that there’s no such thing as CRT in school textbooks? All this from a department that still now crams “character education” down our children’s throats, though it’s nothing more than the bumper-sticker version of social-emotional learning?
How far will you go in defense of the unconscionable? It’s like you’ve transgressed from the Atticus Finch of the original Mockingbird for the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman, the atrocious sequel that should have never seen the light of day.
It was good to see you interview for the Miami-Dade superintendent job in January. You were clearly the best qualified, by far. It was the perfect fit. But the fix was in. The school board wanted Jose Dortes all along. The Miami-Dade board did to you what the Flagler school board did to your competitors when you were named superintendent here in 2014, though they also had it in for you in Miami over that mask nonsense you’d imposed on them. But it told us that maybe you were looking for a way out of the state Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
I hope you are, because if you weren’t so blinded by those whitewashed books your department is peddling across the state, you’d know you’re on the wrong side of history. You’d recall the ordinary gravel you treaded on our campuses and the extraordinary students you touched before the Tallahassee junta’s echo chamber blew your compass. You’d remember, Jacob, what the original Atticus told Jem: “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”