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MIAMI, FL — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made it clear how he views public schools and what they teach children: He doesn’t trust them.
At a recent press conference, he returned to a familiar theme.
“As a result of woke indoctrination in our schools, this is a path of ruin for this country,” he said. “And we’re not going to let that happen in Florida.”
Since becoming governor in 2019, DeSantis has become known for his combative stances on controversial issues, including education. He recently signed a number of measures aimed at preventing the kind of “indoctrination” he and his Republican supporters fear.
His “Stop Woke” act sets limits on how race-related issues can be taught. And it allows parents to sue teachers and school districts that violate it.
Another measure, the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, prohibits any instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in the early years and says beyond that should be “age appropriate”.
In a June interview with the Christian fundamentalist group, Focus on the Family, DeSantis said he thought there was “a concerted effort to inject…the ideology of gender and sexuality into discussions with very young people. children”.
Critics of the law say that is not true. They believe the law is part of an effort by DeSantis and Republicans to mobilize the party’s conservative base by targeting the LGBTQ community.
Robert Cassanello, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, says that although the law only took effect this month, it has already had an impact.
“Some high school teachers have told me that their superiors told them not to mention gays, lesbians or any other sexuality in class,” he says. “Don’t even approach this with 11e and 12e graders. And these are things that they had taught before.”
Cassanello, who teaches civil rights history, is part of a lawsuit challenging the teaching limits on race that are part of DeSantis’ Stop Woke Act.
DeSantis’ focus on schools took shape with the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, when he began fighting with school districts over face masks and other issues. Since then, he has made parental rights one of his top concerns, targeting school boards and administrators who he says must be held accountable.
In his Focus on the Family interview, he said: “There’s an element on the far left that believes that parents really have no role in raising their children. You drop them off at school… and they impose whatever ideology and worldview they want.”
The DeSantis administration has also turned its attention to Florida’s state-backed university system, enacting policies that critics say undermine academic freedom.
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Three University of Florida professors sued last year after learning they could not testify in a lawsuit challenging a voting rights law backed by DeSantis. A judge ruled in their favor, but not before the university’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, launched an investigation. SACS concluded that the university met all of its academic integrity standards. In response, DeSantis signed a bill passed by lawmakers requiring universities to periodically change their credentialing bodies.
Cassanello said, “The Florida Legislature removes accountability from the credentialing system because it is angry with SACS for caring about academic freedom.”
The state has also asked faculty and students to begin participating in voluntary “diversity of viewpoint surveys” to see if conservative ideas are being suppressed on campuses.
More recently, DeSantis launched a civics initiative that he says will ensure elementary, middle and high school students aren’t given a distorted view of history.
“You learn the real story. You learn the real facts,” he said. “It will not be done in a way that indoctrinates students with the modern curriculum that anyone might have.”
Barbara Segal, a government teacher at a Fort Lauderdale high school, recently completed a three-day training session on Florida’s new civic standards. She says, “They were pushing an ideological agenda.” According to Segal, in the training materials, the slides said it was a “misconception” that the Founding Fathers wanted a strict separation of church and state and that they actually wanted religion to be promoted. .
Some of the most shocking documents seemed to downplay slavery’s role in the founding of the country, including one that stated that only 4% of Africa’s slaves came to the colonies.
“Which means,” Segal concluded, “we’re not that bad.”
As first reported by the Miami Herald, training materials were prepared for the state by groups such as the Bill of Rights Institute, founded by Charles Koch, and Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in Michigan influential in the development of conservative education policies.
Segal, a teacher with 18 years in the classroom, says DeSantis is pushing a false narrative that schools promote a “woke” progressive curriculum.
“I hate to say this,” she said, “but I feel like he’s maybe bending to a base to get re-elected and that’s very hurtful.”
DeSantis is up for re-election as governor in November, but is also widely seen as a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
This all comes as Florida faces a severe teacher shortage with more than 9,500 vacancies statewide.
In Brevard County, school board member Jennifer Jenkins says teachers are demoralized. Many have retired or found employment in other fields. In her district, she says there are 20 vacancies at a single school that has just 40 staff.
“I don’t know how we’re going to continue to live in this hostile environment, how we’re going to encourage educators to come into the field and stay,” Jenkin says. “It’s really, really scary.”
School board members have become a particular target. Jenkins has had protesters outside his home, vandalism and threats of violence stemming from his support for a face mask mandate at school.
DeSantis has now begun endorsing candidates running for school board seats, races that have long been nonpartisan. And his gubernatorial re-election campaign released a survey for school board members that includes questions on parental rights, school choice and critical race theory.