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Ron DeSantis is pushing education in Florida much further right

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) displays the signed Parental Rights in Education law during a news conference on March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory school in Shady Hills, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/AP)
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There are 28 state and community colleges in the Florida College System and, on Wednesday, the presidents of each and every one issued a collective statement: They would work to “ensure that all initiatives, instruction, and activities” undertaken at their institutions “do not promote any ideology that suppresses intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”

In the next sentence, any vagueness inspired by that sweeping declaration was dispelled.

“As such,” it read, “our institutions will not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” If critical race theory (CRT) was to be taught, the statement continued, it would be included “as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”

Yes, the college presidents were assuring the public that they would distance their institutions from CRT, an academic regimen that, among other things, examines how racism is embedded in governmental and social systems. They were doing so not because CRT was somehow discredited academically but, instead, because it has become a focus of right-wing criticism in the wake of the renewed attention paid to issues of race that began several years ago. Opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement created alarm that issues of racial inequality were being taught to children. That became — with some obvious nudging — an effort to cast educators and liberals as subjecting kids to political brainwashing.

And nowhere has the pushback been more sweeping or obvious than in Florida.

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The statement from the college presidents didn’t occur in a vacuum. They didn’t collectively review CRT material and determine that it was inappropriate for their students to consider. Instead, the statement followed a letter sent to schools by the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in which he demanded “a comprehensive list of all staff, programs, and campus activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion” — generally called DEI initiatives — “and critical race theory.” What’s more, the list requested by the governor’s office would need to be accompanied by delineations of how many staff and how much funding each required. The threat was obvious.

In the wake of the release of the statement from the college presidents, the state Education Department — which falls under DeSantis’s purview — issued a thoroughly political news release celebrating it.

“Today, the Florida College System (FCS) presidents publicly supported Governor Ron DeSantis’ vision of higher education, one free from indoctrination, an environment open to the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of intellectual autonomy for all students,” it read. “The FCS presidents released a joint statement at Florida’s State Board of Education meeting that rejects the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda, and commits to removing all woke positions and ideologies by February 1, 2023.”

In a quote included in the news release, the state’s commissioner of education celebrated that it promised an education “free from indoctrination and woke ideology.”

This back-and-forth was a microcosm of the ways in which DeSantis has sought to overhaul education in the state, an effort that is sweeping in scope and targeting every academic level. To do so he’s signed new legislation into law — but also, as here, used the implicit powers of his office.

For the youngest Floridians, there have been several changes since DeSantis took office. One of the highest-profile fights of his first term in office was his advocacy of the Parental Rights in Education Act that limited discussion of gender identity and same-sex relationships in early grades — a bill that came to be known to critics as “don’t say gay.” While the bill’s language was softened as it made its way to his desk, the rhetoric around it hardened; a DeSantis spokeswoman described opponents of the legislation as supportive of preparing children for sexual abuse.

DeSantis also advocated for the passage of a law called the “Stop WOKE Act,” a reference to an in-vogue pejorative referring to issues of race or political issues viewed as left-wing. (Or, in Florida, referring to anything DeSantis doesn’t like.) That led to his administration celebrating its rejection of a number of elementary school math textbooks that it purported included elements of CRT — though it soon became obvious that most of the rejected textbooks included nothing even close to CRT.

The state’s Education Department also rolled out a new civics curriculum supported by DeSantis. Last summer, a number of teachers were trained on the new program. Some who spoke with reporters (and provided slides from the training) noted that the curriculum prioritized conservative political views even as it attempted to soften the country’s past embrace of slavery.

“Every lesson we teach is based on history,” the state Education Department said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, “not ideology or any form of indoctrination.”

This week it was reported that the Education Department was rejecting an Advanced Placement curriculum for African American studies that had been under development for more than a decade by the national organization that creates AP programs. The state argued that it “lacked educational value.” The state still offers an AP program in European history.

DeSantis has pushed to overhaul the educational system in other ways, too. He endorsed a slate of school board candidates last year, following up his success with a blueprint aimed at empowering conservative school board members. Soon after his endorsed candidates were seated, a number began firing educators and administrators who’d backed coronavirus precautions. The Education Department also empaneled a group including conservative activists to create standards that would be followed before school librarians could buy new books.

Last summer, The Washington Post reported on DeSantis’s effort to reshape higher education in Florida — and the concerns of college professors.

“Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed laws that alter the tenure system, remove Florida universities from commonly accepted accreditation practices, and mandate annual ‘viewpoint diversity surveys’ from students and faculty,” Susan Svrluga and Lori Rozsa wrote. Their article also quoted an educator at Florida Atlantic University: “It is no exaggeration to say that the DeSantis administration represents an existential threat to higher education in the state of Florida.”

The compliant announcement from those 28 colleges in the state is certainly a reflection of administration pressure. But in recent weeks there’s been a more direct attempt to reshape education. DeSantis appointed six new trustees to the board of the New College of Florida, a public liberal-arts school known for its progressive approach to education. Among them was Christopher Rufo, the writer and activist who helped thrust anti-CRT rhetoric into the mainstream, even as he actively diluted the concept’s meaning.

“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale [College] of the South,” DeSantis’s chief of staff told the conservative site Daily Caller. Hillsdale is one of the most prominent conservative educational institutions in the country.

Taken as a whole — or, really, even when only considering a handful of examples — the thrust of DeSantis’s efforts is clear. The governor hopes to uproot discussions of race and sexuality in favor of right-wing rhetoric and curriculums. He’s taking steps to expand his ability to do so at the local level.

And he’s doing so even as he continues to be a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 — potentially landing a position that would give him control of the federal Education Department.