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The Florida Roundup

Florida's Economy 'On a Really Positive Trajectory,' Critical Race Theory, and Taking on Big Tech

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Tom Hudson
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An IHOP in Miami-Dade County advertises for workers on April 09, 2021.

The fight intensifies over how race and history are taught in Florida schools. The state’s economy keeps improving. And squaring off with social media speech.

Floridians collecting unemployment will see less money in one month. The state will drop out of the federal program that boosted weekly unemployment checks by $300. The payments could have continued through early September.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Our journalists are continuing to work hard to keep you informed across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic said the job market is in a "very transitional state" in an interview with The Florida Roundup. The Atlanta bank's region includes Florida. "To my mind, the unemployment insurance has been an important component of a relief package to families to help them get to the other side without having as much damage as they might have otherwise."

The Florida job market has recovered at a faster pace than elsewhere nationally. April unemployment was 4.8 percent compared to the national 6.1 percent rate. Still, the labor force is smaller than it was the month before the pandemic and there are 676,000 fewer people employed according to state statistics. "It's not so clear that there's any one reason why workers are coming back more slowly," said Bostic.

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courtsey of David Fine/Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic in 2017.

Still, he's optimistic about the direction of job growth, especially in the industries hardest hit such as hospitality – an industry important to Florida's tourist-dependent economy. Lower-wage jobs are coming back, and Bostic expects wages to rise. The state's minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $10 an hour in September under a constitutional amendment OK'd by voters last year.

At the same time, Bostic, who is a voting member of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee this year, remains patient on interest rate policy. The Fed's target borrowing rate has been at zero for more than a year, and expectations are for it to remain at zero for at least another year. In addition, the central bank has been buying $80 billion over government bonds and $40 billion in mortgage-backed bonds each month in an effort to encourage lending by banks.

"We weren't in this policy stance five days before the pandemic," he said. "People should really keep in mind that our policy position is in emergency position. And the question that I ask myself every day is, 'Are we still in an emergency?'"

And how does he answer that question?

"I think so," he said. "I think it's a hard case to say that we're not still in crisis in too many communities."

Critical Race Theory

When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his plan to use more than $100 million of federal CARES Act COVID stimulus money to rework civics curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade students in Florida, he explicitly rejected a broad set of ideas about systemic bias and privilege.

"There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money," he said in March.

"The funny part about it is that it's not technically written into any curriculum in Florida schools right now," said Florida Times-Union Education Reporter Emily Bloch.

Next month, the state Board of Education will consider new rules for teaching history and civics. One provision bans teaching topics that "define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."

"There's no way around it, this is a super-political conversation," Bloch said. It isn't clear how the new policy could be monitored or enforced, though there are concerns the state may wield state education funds. Last fall, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened the possibility of withholding state money from school districts not reopening classrooms for in-person instruction.

Supporters of critical race theory is a collection of ideas that racism is embedded in laws, institutions and practices. Detractors contend the theory itself is racist because of its central focus on race.

"What teachers continuously tell me," Bloch said, "is that the whole point of being in a classroom and having a critical conversation is that people should be able to exchange different personal opinions and their backgrounds. Maybe not everyone agrees, but teachers tell me they're training their students to be able to take those ideas with logic and perspective. And it's not going to indoctrinate them."

Big Tech Battle

Florida is ground zero for the fight over social media speech.

On Monday, Gov. DeSantis signed into law a bill prohibiting social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook from suspending politicians.“We now have a situation in which some of the massive, massive companies in Silicon Valley are exerting a power over our population that really has no precedent in American history," he said.

By Thursday, the new law faced its first court challenge. Two interest groups have sued – NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "We're suing on behalf of the industry to try and safeguard the commitment that all of these digital services have made to us as their users to address harmful content online," said CCIA President Matt Schruers. He includes harmful content to include foreign disinformation efforts, anti-American extremist, fraud, malware and computer viruses.

The law bans large social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter from kicking off a political candidate or face a $250,000 daily fine. Twitter permanently suspected now former President Donald Trump on Jan. 9 for violating its terms of service. Trump is a Florida resident.

"What we're talking about here is a First Amendment right not to speak or write – not to be compelled to host content that an entity such as Twitter or Facebook does not want to hold, said Clay Calvert, director of the Brechner First Amendment Project at University of Florida. "That's what's happening here. It's the state of Florida telling these entities you must post the content of candidates who violate your terms of use in terms of service and you can't deplatform them."

The law carves out exceptions to any company "that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex" in Florida. In other words: Disney and Comcast, owner of Universal Studios.

"That makes no sense," said Schruers., "If the risk is that these services are a threat to free expression, it shouldn't matter whether or not they own a theme park."

The governor and supporters of the law argue social media platforms are today's public square – they are the marketplace for ideas. Seventy percent of American adults use Facebook according to a 2019 Pew Research survey. Google's YouTube was even more popular. In April, YouTube removed a video of DeSantis hosting a roundtable discussion with a group of controversial scientists. YouTube said the video "contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities" on children wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"If a digital service says you're not welcome here, you can always go out on your own and set up your own website, use other tools to access users. Nobody is guaranteed to be able to reach all the users that they can reach on by using a particular platform," said Schruers. "The First Amendment is freedom of speech. It's not freedom of reach."

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.