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Republican lawmakers have education in their sights amid fights over race and history

Education has been a contentious issue during the pandemic—with how best to teach students during times of social unrest, and a raging public health crisis, at the center of the conflict.

About a dozen Florida school boards and their superintendents publicly flouted directives issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis, resulting in a lawsuit that was later dismissed. And the state’s superintendents association had to distance itself from its national arm after that group likened some enraged parents to domestic terrorists. These are the issues now fueling the Republican-led Florida legislature’s efforts to further curb local school district powers while placing more dictums on how and what public schools can teach.

Amid the social justice movements of the last two years, Republicans caught wind of another boogyman: something called Critical Race Theory. It’s an academic framework used in higher education to explore how race, and racism, influence public policy. It is not taught in Florida’s public K-12 schools. That, alongside ongoing efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion in government and businesses, is a step too far for many. Republican Rep. Randy Fine says neither DEI, nor Critical Race Theory have any place in Florida’s public schools.

“I’d like to see us change how we fund schools, I’d like to see us take another look at virtual education, and most importantly, I want us to make sure we’re getting critical race theory out of our schools," Fine said during an interview with The Florida Channel.

Former President Donald Trump blasted DEI training as divisive and un-American and Republicans have followed suit: amping up criticism of so-called “WOKE” policies they say teach white children to hate themselves. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a plan to stop WOKE-NESS: his legislative proposal would let parents sue teachers who use critical race theory and would ban districts from hiring firms to present on DEI issues. The proposal builds on state rules approved last fall to prevent students from receiving such instruction.

That’s not the end of the legislature’s efforts to greater police what and how students are taught. Florida school boards are again in the crosshairs of Republicans after many broke with the governor during the pandemic to require students to wear face coverings. Nearly a dozen districts made their own mandatory policies after DeSantis said they should be voluntary. Now, Republican Senator, and state GOP Chairman Joe Gruters wants to make school board races partisan—meaning candidates would have to publicly identify their party.

“Sometimes even when you have a candidate that’s of a certain political persuasion you don’t always get the outcome that you desired…but it at least gives you the thought that if they registered with a certain party, those core beliefs and values that you commonly share should be there when they’re making those votes," Grueters said in a November Senate committee meeting defending the policy.

During that same hearing, Boca Raton Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky said she views the proposal as an attempt to unmask Democrats and Republicans in red and blue counties, whose views may not align with the state's Republican leadership.

"There seems to be a movement afoot to remove school board members, groups coming together to take them out’. And there’s a strong hostility toward them and that really bothers me a lot.”

School board races are among the last non-partisan contests in the state, and the state’s parent-teacher organization believes they should stay that way. But Gruters says the races, and by extension the policies and practices local board members have engaged in within the past year, are partisan. Meanwhile, a plan to term limit local school board members is back again. It’s been pitched and rejected previously but has greater momentum this year given the renewed focus on education amid the pandemic and evolving debates over race, and equity. Speaking with WFSU last year, Republican Sen. Manny Diaz noted parents have become increasingly vocal—and much of the discourse is being driven by them.

“Everything has changed with COVID. And parents are more intent on being involved and having flexibility with their student’s education." 

Education also makes up the largest spend in the state’s General Revenue. And lawmakers will have their hands full on navigating issues that will impact Florida’s more than 2.8 million public school students.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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