DeSantis fights a counterproductive culture war in Florida’s schools

Governor Ron DeSantis greets DeSoto County Sheriff James Potter in October 2022 before touring southwest Florida to survey the damage from Hurricane Ian.
Governor Ron DeSantis greets DeSoto County Sheriff James Potter in October 2022 before touring southwest Florida to survey the damage from Hurricane Ian.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s crusade against “wokeness” in education (and in some other areas) has drawn a ferocious backlash. The Republican governor and presidential hopeful has been accused of whipping up a right-wing culture war over a non-issue in a bid to boost his political credentials—and, in the process, imposing his authoritarian will under the guise of championing freedom of speech and expression. In fact, concerns about radical progressive ideologies in education are more valid than DeSantis critics allow, and free speech is not as much of an issue in K–12 education as in colleges and universities since the state has a legitimate role in shaping the school curriculum. But for those who would like to see meaningful reforms to address concerns about overpoliticized education, the DeSantis “anti-woke” crusade is frustratingly counterproductive.

This crusade goes back at least to 2021, when the Florida State Board of Education approved DeSantis-backed rules that not only called for “factual and objective” classroom instruction but also explicitly banned “theories that distort historical events,” giving “critical race theory” and Holocaust denial as examples, and specifically excluded “material from the 1619 Project,” a New York Times package of essays placing slavery at the center of American history (See “‘The 1619 Project’ Enters American Classrooms,” features, Fall 2020).

In 2022, as the culture wars heated up, DeSantis signed two major bills that regulated educational practices in the state. The education section of the “Stop WOKE Act” required all classroom instruction to follow “certain principles of individual freedom,” among them that “no individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex” and “a person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions … committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The “parental rights” bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Law” prohibited “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity … in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Highway billboards respond to DeSantis’s parental rights law, which restricts instruction on some sex and gender topics before 4th grade.
Highway billboards respond to DeSantis’s parental rights law, which restricts instruction on some sex and gender topics before 4th grade.

Apart from its cringeworthy acronym (for “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”), the Stop WOKE Act seems clearly unconstitutional with regard to higher education; it has been challenged and blocked by federal courts, with litigation expected to continue at least until the end of this year. But K–12 is not covered by the same legal protections for freedom of speech.

Detractors of DeSantis’s legislative crusade argue that it’s a nakedly demagogic appeal to bigotry and moral panic stoked by right-wing propaganda. They scoff at the notion that children are being taught either Critical Race Theory (CRT)—which they describe as a method used in universities or law schools of analyzing how structural racism operates—or “gender theory” lessons with explicit sexual content. They dismiss objections to materials from the 1619 Project as discomfort with honest discussion of slavery and racism in America.

The critics are wrong on a number of points. CRT has indisputably influenced K–12 schooling. More than a decade ago, an article in the journal Educational Foundations noted that “a growing number of teacher education programs are fundamentally oriented around a vision of social justice” and often incorporate “critical race theory” and related “critical pedagogy.” The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, explicitly endorsed CRT as one of the “tools” of anti-racist teaching in a 2021 resolution (later scrubbed from the NEA’s website along with other “business items”). Moreover, CRT is not just an analysis of racism but an ideological framework with rightly controversial elements. It makes disputed claims about embedded racism in every aspect of society and in every interaction. It also exhibits hostility to liberal institutions and, as prominent Black scholar Henry Louis Gates noted 30 years ago, to First Amendment protections for speech. And while claims about the pernicious effects of CRT in school often come from culture warriors with an agenda, such as Manhattan Institute fellow (and DeSantis ally) Christopher Rufo, they have enough documented factual substance to be concerning.

Critics of CRT cite books like Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness as evidence of its influence on curricula.
Critics of CRT cite books like Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness as evidence of its influence on curricula.

For instance, a classroom project in Cupertino, California, in 2020, canceled after one session due to parental complaints, had 3rd-grade students list their various “social identities” and analyze them in terms of “power and privilege.” Dozens of schools have reportedly used as K–5 reading material a picture book called Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, which presents “whiteness” as a literal devil offering “stolen riches” and offers a crude dichotomy in which Black Americans are cast solely as oppressed victims, whites as perpetrators or enablers. High school assignments on “white privilege” can easily devolve into blaming-and-shaming tactics such as asking students to ponder “everything you may be doing to promote/maintain” racial privilege or telling them that “the world is set up for [white people’s] convenience.” This is not only polarizing but inaccurate: While racial prejudice and injustice remain a reality, 21st century America is far more diverse and complex than such perspectives allow.

Likewise, the 1619 Project has been accused not only by the right but by liberal and socialist critics of distorting historical facts to claim that “[o]ur history as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy”—claiming, for example, that one of the goals of the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery from supposed British efforts at its abolition.

And gender identity education, sometimes as early as elementary school, can include questionable material—for instance, material telling second-graders that “You might feel like you are a boy, you might feel like you are a girl” or “a little bit of both,” regardless of body parts that “some people” associate with male or female sex. Not only conservatives but some suburban liberal parents have objected to readings which not only include overly sexualized content but seem to reinforce stereotypes—for instance, that girls who aren’t “girly” and like to wear pants may actually be boys. (School library books, another bone of contention in Florida, sometimes raise similar issues.)

So the problems are real. But how good are the proposed solutions?

On their face, the “principles of individual freedom” articulated in the “Stop WOKE Act” sound mostly reasonable: most of us will agree that children should not be told that they are presumptively racist because of their skin color or racial identity, or told that they should feel shame and anguish because of racist acts committed by people of the same color or identity in the past. But while the language of the bill makes some attempts to focus on intentionality (i.e. to specify that there must be deliberate instruction to feel guilt, shame, etc., or explicit assertion that members of some groups are by definition racist or oppressive), laws that attempt to regulate speech and ideas are inevitably open to subjective interpretations. In one notorious incident in Tennessee, some conservative activists from a parents’ group combating “CRT” and other “woke” excesses in schools targeted Ruby Bridges Goes to School, a children’s book written by Ruby Bridges, the Black civil rights icon who was famously escorted by federal marshals on her way to a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. Some people evidently objected to the reference to a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want black children in a white school,” feeling that the passage was too negative, and also complained that the book didn’t offer “redemption” at the end. This is an almost perfect example of how easily a factual account of some episodes from history can run afoul of laws that attempt to target deliberate shaming. Some Florida teachers have said that in the wake of the “Stop WOKE Act,” they’re worried about teaching material like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because it could mean “trampling on … landmines.”

The same problem of subjective standards plagues regulations regarding school library books, the purging of which new Florida laws make it much easier for parents to demand—in some cases without even reading the books in question.

This situation is particularly ironic since so much of the conservative critique of “wokeness” ridicules—for the most part, rightly—claims that people from “marginalized” groups need to be “safe” from words and ideas that could make them feel bad about themselves or their identities. You could make a solid argument that the “Stop WOKE Act” should actually be called “the Safe Spaces for Conservatives Act.”

DeSantis’s plan to deny the College Board an Advanced Placement African American Studies course, accusing it of “woke indoctrination,” drew demonstrations outside the state capitol.
DeSantis’s plan to deny the College Board an Advanced Placement African American Studies course, accusing it of “woke indoctrination,” drew demonstrations outside the state capitol.

The CRT bans and the restrictions on gender- and sexuality-related instruction suffer from the same problem of subjectivity. Since critical race theory is not directly taught in K–12, the bans would apply to texts or other materials that can be described as influenced by this mode of analysis. But that, once again, opens the way to parental complaints based on interpretation of any text related to either contemporary or historical racial issues. And with regard to gender and sexuality, “age-appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” may open even bigger cans of worms.

What’s more, the conduct of the DeSantis administration so far does not exactly dispel concerns that its educational regulations are setting the stage for massive overreach. Just recently, the administration moved to expand the ban on teaching related to gender identity and sexual orientation from K–3 to K–12. And a new bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives in February, based on proposals made earlier by DeSantis, takes the axe to a variety of state college and university programs based on progressive ideas about race and gender—including majors and minors in “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems” and general education core courses that include CRT or define American history in something other than the approved way (i.e. “the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence”).

There are better ways to tackle the problem of ideologically skewed public-school instruction. Reviewing K–12 school materials for accuracy and balance, for instance, should not raise objections. But this task should be approached in the genuine spirit of balance, not culture-warrioring. Once again, the DeSantis administration’s record in this regard is not encouraging. (Witness the recent college-level controversy over the “anti-woke” takeover of New College Florida, where DeSantis packed the board of trustees with people who were both his personal loyalists and Donald Trump supporters—and who immediately embarked on a project to make over the college in an explicitly political way.)

Some “woke” excesses can be curbed with rules that prohibit the personal targeting of students—for instance, with exercises suggesting that they or their families are racist or complicit in white supremacy—without broad bans on certain types of ideas or concepts, especially if those concepts are defined so broadly and subjectively that they could apply to a wide range of material. Other matters might be more constructively addressed by school districts rather than statewide.

Lastly, at least in older grades—perhaps 6–12—the best approach to contentious issues should be to teach the debates. The 1619 Project is a perfect example: instead of turning it into forbidden fruit and putting the state in the role of curriculum censor, why not have students read excerpts from the project as well as the critiques? The same approach could be taken to other issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—issues to which students will invariably have exposure one way or the other, via social media, journalism, or entertainment. Teaching the controversies would alleviate concerns about indoctrination in one or the other direction and instead encourage critical engagement with both historical sources and modern media. Likewise, asking school libraries to add more ideologically diverse content rather than remove content some parents find objectionable could be a constructive approach to the library wars.

More is better. Done right, such an approach in K–12 would promote genuine diversity of viewpoints, intellectual tolerance, and understanding instead of polarization.

Cathy Young is a fellow at the Cato Institute who also writes for The Bulwark, Newsday, and Reason.

This is part of the forum, “Is Ron DeSantis’s Education Record Anything to Emulate?” For an alternate take, see “DeSantis defends values while expanding choice to de-escalate the stakes” by William Mattox.

This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Mattox, W., and Young, C. (2023). Is Ron DeSantis’s Education Record Anything to Emulate? Education Next, 23(3), 62-71.

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