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In his fight against ‘woke’ schools, DeSantis tears at the seams of a diverse Florida

Some Republicans want to let parents sue schools and teachers over student ‘discomfort’

Students arrive for the first day of classes at a public school in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg News)

MIAMI — The school system in Florida’s most populous county includes students whose families moved here from 160 nations.

Its expansive cultural mix is represented in the district’s curriculum, which includes not only American history, but also the stories of violent government upheavals, such as the revolution of enslaved people who founded Haiti, and the more recent political trauma of protesters who fled or perished in Castro’s Cuba.

But as Florida lawmakers consider legislation to police what students are taught, Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Russell Rywell wonders if he will still be able to discuss how some of his students’ ancestors arrived in the United States.

“How do you teach slavery? The slave trade? The Holocaust?” asked Rywell, a speech and debate teacher who has taught in Miami-Dade County’s public schools for 11 years. “How do you teach these issues without talking about the participants and the roles they played?”

As part of the “stop-woke” agenda of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Florida lawmakers are now considering bills that would allow almost anyone to object to any instruction in public school classrooms. DeSantis wants to give people the right to sue schools and teachers over what they teach based on student “discomfort.” The proposed legislation is far-reaching and could affect even corporate human resources diversity training.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

While the legislation mirrors national efforts to ban critical race theory in schools, the debate in Florida has turned especially raw and emotional, a testament to how central multiculturalism is to the state’s identity. Many parents and teachers — who note that critical race theory is not taught in Florida’s public schools and is already banned under state law — fear the legislation would force teachers to whitewash history, literature and religion courses.

In recent days, advocates on both sides of Florida’s ideological divide have said they are girding for a divisive political fight in a state where more than 1 in 5 residents are foreign-born and nearly half the population is Latino, Black or Asian American.

Political analysts say the battle could have wide-ranging impacts that carry over into the 2022 midterms and DeSantis’s reelection campaign.

Florida voters have shifted to the right in recent elections. But many analysts remain skeptical that residents want to upend how cultural and ethnic histories are shared in classrooms and workplaces, raising questions about how far DeSantis can tug at the seams of Florida’s demographic makeup.

“A lot of people have been begging the Republican Party to be more inclusive, and if you look at the gains that were made in 2020, it was with Latino Republicans,” said Susan A. MacManus, a retired political science professor at the University of South Florida and a widely respected state political analyst. “But things change, and with the debate over [critical race theory] … we may see challenged doctrines with regards to party voting and ethnic voting, and the old tried-and-true explanations may no longer apply.”

In speeches, DeSantis has sought to frame his “anti-woke” agenda as pushback against “a form of cultural Marxism” that elevates some historical lessons while downplaying others.

“The goal is to delegitimize the founding of this country, the principles that the founders relied on, our institutions, our constitution, to tear basically at the fabric of our society,” DeSantis said in a recent speech at the Common Sense Society, an international research institute popular with conservatives. “And they want to replace it with effectively left-wing ideology as the founding ethos of America. That would be a disaster.”

Florida Democratic lawmakers, who have been in the minority for nearly a generation, argue that DeSantis is polarizing the state while positioning himself for a possible presidential campaign, where predominantly White, conservative voters will play a crucial role in deciding the GOP nominee.

“What is happening is our governor is competing with the governor of Texas over who will be the heir apparent to Donald Trump,” said Florida House Democratic Whip Ramon Alexander, who is Black. “It’s all about who can go to the farthest extremes of the Republican Party.”

Even some Florida Republicans lament DeSantis’s approach, which they describe as divisive and a step back from how past state GOP leaders have governed. “Our party has become mean, and driven by emotion on whom we dislike,” said Alex Patton, a Gainesville-based Republican consultant and pollster. “But that is the driving force in American politics right now.”

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Florida legislators are debating two versions of DeSantis’s Stop Woke Act, known as SB148 in the state Senate and HB7 in the House. DeSantis uses “woke” as an acronym he devised for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.”

Under the Senate bill, Florida businesses could not mandate that employees attend diversity trainings that cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress.” Employees who are distressed by a training could file a lawsuit against their employers.

The Senate bill also sets new standards for school curriculum, requiring districts to teach “the history and content” of the Declaration of Independence and proper forms of patriotism. Teachers and lesson plans may not imply that any “individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

“An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” the legislation states.

HB7 is even more expansive, giving parents and state regulators considerable authority to ban books or teachings that cause discomfort, including carefully reviewing lessons about “the Civil War, the expansion of the United States … the world wars, and the civil rights movement.”

A separate bill in the Senate, SB1300, would also appoint a state-trained reviewer in each school district to look over curriculums and textbooks, and establish procedures for any parents or resident to file objections to material they find offensive. Lawmakers are also considering bills that would bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation in primary school, giving parents the right to sue school districts that violate the policy.

Vonzell Agosto, a professor of curriculum studies at the University of South Florida, said the Stop Woke Act looks very similar to an executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 that barred the use of “divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is “fundamentally racist or sexist.”

If it becomes law in Florida, she said, teachers will abandon lessons on issues ranging from the history of civil rights to the Holocaust.

“Part of the way you teach the Holocaust in the state of Florida is associating it with prejudice and racism,” Agosto said. “Once you make teaching racism taboo, you’ve made it very difficult to teach about antisemitism. … I don’t understand how you’d teach the civil rights movement without connecting it to economic injustice and racism.”

Rywell, the Miami Beach teacher, said if the legislation passes he suspects most teachers will become even more cautious with their words, denying students the benefit of freewheeling classroom discussions.

“Teaching is a constant set of judgment calls,” Rywell said. “To try to specify, ‘This is what you can say, this is what you can’t say,’ is very, very difficult. Every word can be interpreted differently.”

Other flash points in the legislation are provisions that give employees the right to file legal challenges if they are subjected to workplace diversity trainings that make them uncomfortable. Rosalie Ellis Payne, the interim dean of Florida Memorial University’s business school, said those provisions could gut corporate trainings in the state’s highly diverse tourism industry.

“You’ll have people in hiring positions who will go back to just dealing with folks who look like them, and they will see nothing wrong with that,” said Payne, who previously did human resources work for cruise lines.

But the push to crack down on what legislators view as critical race theory, an intellectual movement that examines how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism, has galvanized conservative parents around the state.

For more than a year, angry parents — who began by protesting mask mandates — have been crowding into school board meetings objecting to lesson plans that touch on race, gender or sexual orientation.

In response to that pressure, Polk County Public Schools recently removed 16 books from the library including “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan.

Rick Stevens, a pastor who is co-founder and director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative advocacy group, said parents are “horrified” to learn that some children are being taught explicit or potentially traumatic history lessons in classrooms. He is especially worried that lessons about slavery could make White children feel guilty over the actions of their ancestors.

“What we don’t want teachers to do is to take sides, and that’s the objectivity that I believe the governor is trying to solve,” Stevens said. “We want them to take sides that slavery was wrong, but they don’t need to take sides that one race purposefully did it, and so now that race is forever condemned, and another race is forever exalted. That just doesn’t add up. That’s just not right.”

Tina Descovich, a leader of Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based conservative group that advocates for “parental rights,” said DeSantis is merely responding to parents who have been “opening up backpacks” and finding history lessons or class assignments that are “divisive,” especially for students in elementary school.

“To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another,” said Descovich, 47.

Asked what age would be appropriate for detailed lessons about the treatment of enslaved people, Descovich said it should be up to parents to decide.

“Moms in each community need to have a voice in that discussion,” said Descovich, who has been trying to position Moms for Liberty as a nationwide political force in the 2022 midterm elections.

Other Florida parents have started organizing against Moms for Liberty and their allies in the Florida Legislature.

Lisa Schurr, an attorney who lives in Sarasota, and three other women recently founded Support Our Schools, a statewide group that advocates for what they describe as diverse, fact-based school curriculums and textbooks.

“We are all appalled about what is happening in Florida,” said Schurr, 62. “They don’t want our kids to be critical thinkers. … And to say [a student] can’t feel discomfort. What about the child of color? What about the gay child? You don’t think this legislation is making them feel discomfort? You don’t think they have felt discomfort for all of their lives?”

Kim Hough, a Melbourne mother aligned with another newly formed group, Families for Safe Schools, said she is alarmed at how quickly the conservative parental rights movement transitioned into a major, statewide political force.

“We are all trying to raise socially responsible human beings, in addition to well-educated human beings, so I don’t understand the purpose of withholding information from them,” said Hough, 48, a former Republican who recently became a Democrat and decided to run for the Brevard County School Board. “If DeSantis gets reelected in 2022, I really fear the rules will be so stringent that local school boards won’t even be able to function at that point, and the state will be the end-all-be-all of all rules.”

Moms for Liberty has turned ‘parental rights’ into a rallying cry for conservative parents

DeSantis, however, continues to highlight his “anti-woke” agenda at public events, suggesting he believes it’s a political winner. At a recent speech in Gainesville to distribute funding for workforce education programs, DeSantis said the concept of critical race theory is “denigrating our country.”

“We want to make sure people can go to school without being scapegoated or without being targeted,” DeSantis said. “And I think that’s where the vast, vast majority of people want to be.”

But Patton, the GOP strategist, said some of his clients in the Florida legislature are privately “exasperated” over having to consider DeSantis’s bills, believing the governor is trading short-term political support for the party’s long-term image among “young voters and college-educated voters.”

“How do you legislate someone feeling discomfort?” Patton asked. “To a lot of [GOP lawmakers], it doesn’t make intellectual sense.”

For now, MacManus, the political scientist, said DeSantis has clearly tapped into the skepticism many suburban White parents who “vote their kids” feel around these issues. Those voters traditionally turn out in higher numbers in a midterm election, she said.

In recent weeks, however, MacManus has seen Black mothers — who also tend to have robust turnout — become more galvanized in opposition to DeSantis’s efforts. What remains unclear, MacManus said, is how various segments of the state’s Latino community view the debate.

“[Critical race theory] means different things, to different people depending on their circumstances, their backgrounds and their country of origin,” said MacManus, adding that the debate over DeSantis’s proposal remains largely anchored in “Black or White” terms.

In Miami, some parents say they are starting to pay closer attention to how the proposals could affect their children’s education.

Liliana Vera, who has three children in Miami-Dade schools, is a first-generation American of Cuban and Argentine descent.

In an interview, Vera, 34, recalled a lesson her daughter received on voting rights, which she now worries will be prohibited if the legislation is enacted.

“The teacher gave them each a slip of paper and said they would vote on whether the class got recess. Then the teacher took away the papers from all the girls, and then from all the Black and Brown students, and that left only the White kids with the right to vote,” Vera said.

“I absolutely agreed with that lesson,” Vera said. “We don’t need to shield kids from the facts. They can handle the truth.”

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.