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DeSantis mandates lessons on communism for high school students

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at Miami's Freedom Tower on Monday. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill into law Monday establishing a new state holiday known as “Victims of Communism Day” on which public schools are required to teach students about communist regimes.

The law states that starting next year “Victims of Communism Day” will be observed by public schools on Nov. 7. On that day, high-schoolers will receive lessons in their U.S. government classes about the “atrocities” that have been imposed by communist governments.

DeSantis said during a news conference that the day is meant to “to honor the more than 100 million people who have fallen victim to communist regimes across the world.”

“We want to make sure that every year, folks in Florida — but particularly our students — will learn about the evils of communism, the dictators who have led communist regimes and the hundreds of millions of individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer under the weight of this discredited ideology,” he said.

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The bill states:

Beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, high school students enrolled in the United States Government class required by s. 1003.4282 must receive at least 45 minutes of instruction on “Victims of Communism Day” on topics such as Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet System, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and Nicolás Maduro and the Chavismo movement, and how victims suffered under these regimes through suppression of speech, poverty, starvation, migration, and systemic lethal violence.

Some opponents argue that although the trauma suffered by victims of communism, particularly in Cuba, are real, DeSantis’s motives are not. “He continues to ignite culture wars under the guise of fighting ‘communism’ while embodying the same authoritarian power grabs we are all too familiar with,” one student activist tweeted.

Others say the governor should turn his attention to the issues in his state.

“Why the hell can we not focus for even a moment on what’s impacting people everyday?” Brandon Wolf, press secretary of Equality Florida, tweeted.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) told reporters Monday that the new law is part of a bigger initiative to eliminate critical race theory (CRT) from schools. Critical race theory is an academic concept taught largely in law schools that sets a framework for examining systemic racism.

“By the actions we’re taking today, along with actions that we’ve already taken like removing CRT, ‘woke’ ideologies from our classrooms, making sure that parents have the right — empowering parents to make decisions for their children — we will always ensure that our students are getting the best education,” she said.

DeSantis has been working to restrict classroom discussions on topics including race, racism, gender and history. Last year, his administration set new rules banning CRT. And, more recently, state education officials eliminated a number of math textbooks on its adoption list in part because they did not align with state content standards, called the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or BEST, or they included “prohibited topics” such as CRT, the officials said in a statement.

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DeSantis also recently signed into law the “Stop Woke Act” to “give businesses, employees, children and families tools to stand up against discrimination and woke indoctrination,” according to a statement.

CRT is centered on the idea that racism is not simply individual prejudice but is systemic, woven into our legal systems — but it is also connected to other intellectual ideas. Conservatives have conflated critical race theory with the teaching about systemic racism — such as when government officials in the 1930s made it hard for Black people to get mortgage loans to buy homes — and any diversity efforts in schools and businesses. They argue racism in America is the work of individuals and not broad laws or policies and have attempted to limit what teachers can say in classrooms about systemic racism in America’s past and present.

Now, conservative activists have targeted social-emotional learning programs — aimed at helping students deal with social and emotional issues that can affect their academic performance, saying they are a vehicle for teaching critical race theory.

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In addition to creating “Victims of Communism Day,” DeSantis announced that he will set aside $25 million for renovations and restoration of Miami’s historic Freedom Tower, which once housed the Cuban Assistance Center, helping Cubans fleeing communism in the 1960s, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

“Honoring the people that have fallen victim to communist regimes and teaching our students about those atrocities is the best way to ensure that history does not repeat itself,” the governor said Monday in the statement.

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.