The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The blue Midwest is where DeSantis’s school crackdowns ‘go to die’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker for The Washington Post)
4 min

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, is fond of describing his state as the place “where woke goes to die.”

If so, perhaps Democratic governors can do more to advertise their states as places where Florida-style school crackdowns go to die.

Some Democratic governors — not just in coastal states but also in Midwestern ones — are beginning to test this idea. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has seized on DeSantis’s latest culture-warring — Florida’s decision to ban an Advanced Placement course in African American studies — to articulate a contrasting vision for what topics should be permitted in classrooms.

This week, Pritzker singled out DeSantis as an “extremist,” after the College Board introduced a revised AP course in Black studies in response to DeSantis’s attacks. Florida nixed the old version for including topics such as “intersectionality” and “queer studies,” and the new version removes explicit mentions of those or downgrades them to optional topics.

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In response, Pritzker faulted the board from the other direction, slamming its move as “a weak attempt to please extremists.” Pritzker hammered DeSantis for fearing classroom discussion of “intersectionality, feminism and queer Black life,” explicitly defining them as “components of Black History.”

This comes after Pritzker told the College Board that Illinois might not use its new AP course in African American studies if it is modified to “appease extremists” and “fit Florida’s racist and homophobic laws.”

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What happened with the AP class is complex. The College Board denies that the new version is a response to DeSantis’s criticism, insisting these changes were underway earlier. And the new version does require teaching some topics that would advance students’ understanding of structural racism — a concept targeted by the right — such as redlining and housing discrimination.

Still, the new version removes scholars that Florida criticized, such as civil rights scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, a DeSantis bogeywoman. As Crenshaw noted, at a minimum this creates the “appearance of bowing to political pressure in the context of new knowledge and ideas.”

In response, Democrats could explicitly declare that topics discouraged or banned in Florida classrooms will not be discouraged or banned in their states’ classrooms. They could model a liberal cultural agenda as an alternative to the reactionary culture-warring now underway in Florida and other red states.

In coming months, Pritzker will grow more vocal on this front, a source familiar with his thinking tells me. He will amplify the case that restricting classroom topics works against kids’ interests and risks stunting intellectual growth, and that a more open approach sharpens their arguments and thinking, making them more competitive in the quest for higher education.

Pritzker will also argue that Illinois prides itself on refraining from the kind of directives that seem designed to encourage school libraries to remove books to avoid running afoul of the law.

As the source told me, the message will be: “Illinois doesn’t ban books.”

Something similar is underway in Michigan, where Democrats just captured full control of state government. After getting reelected against a frothing culture warrior, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer immediately vowed a new push to protect LGBTQ rights, explicitly contrasting this with regressive measures in nearby Ohio and Indiana.

And Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, the new chairwoman of the chamber’s Education Committee, recently vowed that the panel will “listen to educators first” and “will not participate in the demonization of teachers.” Under GOP control, that committee wasted time chasing phantom pedagogical enemies, she says, but now it will pursue legislation making it more attractive for young people to enter the profession.

The misnamed “parents rights” movement in Florida and elsewhere often deliberately caricatures “woke” educators as the enemies of parents and vulnerable children. In places such as Michigan and Illinois, legislators will instead treat the professionalism of educators as a valuable asset.

DeSantis’s “anti-woke” crusade is really about using the bureaucracy to suppress certain structural understandings of racism that would actually challenge students to broaden their thinking. His “anti-woke” classroom police are restricting curriculums and collecting budgeting information on college courses that violate orthodoxy. To avoid running afoul of vaguely defined decrees, teachers and librarians are aggressively self-censoring.

“DeSantis is reaching down into the minute-by-minute personal lives of families and kids and schools,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me. “The sum total of it all is really creepy.”

The “Orwellian nature” of this use of “government to manipulate and micromanage our lives,” Murphy continued, provides “an opportunity for Democrats.”

These red-state innovations in fighting the culture wars are incentivizing Democratic state actors to innovate themselves, as political scientist Jacob Grumbach notes. Blue-state politicians with higher ambitions have a big opening to dramatize an alternative cultural vision for the future of the country.