Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has gained a national profile by focusing on “culture wars,” including how race and gender are taught in schools. But his education program goes much further.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made education a big part of his agenda. It set limits on how topics involving race and sexual orientation can be taught in schools. He endorsed the so-called diversity of viewpoint surveys for colleges and universities. And now he gets involved in local school board races. NPR’s Greg Allen tells us these are just some of the steps DeSantis is taking to exert more control over Florida schools.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Ron DeSantis has made it clear how he views public schools and what they teach kids. He doesn’t trust them.
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RON DESANTIS: Following the awakened indoctrination in our schools – it’s a path of ruin for this country, and we’re not going to let that happen in Florida.
ALLEN: DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has signed off on a number of measures aimed at preventing the kind of indoctrination he and his Republican supporters fear. His Stop WOKE law sets limits on how race-related issues can be taught and allows parents to sue teachers and school districts who violate it. Another, the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed Don’t Say Gay by critics, prohibits instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in the early years and says, beyond that, that should be age appropriate.
Robert Cassanello, who teaches history at the University of Central Florida, says that although the law only took effect this month, it has already had an impact.
ROBERT CASSANELLO: There have been high school teachers who have told me that their superiors told them not to mention homosexuals, lesbians or any other sexuality in class. Don’t even bring this up with 11th or 12th graders. And these are things that they had taught before.
ALLEN: Cassanello was part of a lawsuit challenging the limits on teaching about race that are part of DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act. Governor DeSantis’ focus on schools really took shape with the onset of the COVID pandemic, when he battled with school districts over face masks and other issues. Since then, he has made parental rights one of his main issues, targeting school boards and administrators. He has launched a new civics initiative which he says will ensure pupils are not given a distorted view of history.
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DESANTIS: You learn the real story. You learn the real facts. But it’s not going to be done in a way that tries to indoctrinate the students with whatever modern curriculum someone might have.
ALLEN: Barbara Segal, a government teacher at a Fort Lauderdale high school, recently completed a three-day training session on Florida’s new civic standards.
BARBARA SEGAL: They were pushing an ideological agenda.
ALLEN: In the training material, a slide indicated that 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. Segal says some of the most shocking documents seemed to downplay slavery’s role in the founding of the country, including one that said…
SEGAL: Only 4% of slaves came to America, which means we’re not that bad.
ALLEN: Segal, a teacher with 18 in the classroom, says DeSantis’ educational initiatives are aimed at what she calls a false narrative — that schools promote a woke progressive agenda.
SEGAL: I hate to say this, but I feel like maybe he’s pandering to a base to get re-elected, and that’s very hurtful.
ALLEN: 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.
JENNIFER JENKINS: 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. It’s really, really scary.
ALLEN: 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 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.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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