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Behind Gov. DeSantis' effort to 'fight back against woke indoctrination'

Gov. Ron DeSantis stands behind a podium with the words STOP WOKE ACT written on the front
screenshot from The Florida Channel
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Florida public schools, which has been prohibited by a Board of Education rule since June. No Florida public schools teacher the theory.

The governor’s war on "wokeness" — critics call it a distraction and even dangerous. DeSantis calls it common sense.

Teaching critical race theory is banned in Florida under a state Board of Education rule passed in June, at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, even though the theory wasn’t being taught in public schools.

Now the governor wants to go even further. This week, he proposed a new law that would — in his words — give businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against "woke indoctrination."

"It violates Florida standards to scapegoat someone based on their race to say that, you know, they're inherently racist, to say that they're an oppressor or oppressed or any of that, and that's good and that's important. But we also have to realize that we got to do more to make sure that that actually carries the day in the classrooms and in our society," DeSantis said Wednesday.

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The exact language of the legislation has not been released, but it will be one of the focal points for the governor during the upcoming legislative session beginning next month.

DeSantis says the bill will also target companies and certain workplace training and practices.

"Just to understand when you hear equity used, that is just an inability for people to smuggle in their ideology because we don't need to have these terms," said DeSantis. "We have a society based on equality where you're treated equally, regardless of your upbringing, regardless of your race, you have the same rights and privileges as anybody else. Equity is used to put the thumb on the scale in favor of their ideology."

The governor gave a list of examples to back up his efforts, though none were in Florida.

Critical race theory is a concept generally understood to hold that racism is more than individual prejudice, but also something that is present in social institutions and practices. The now-banned lending practice of redlining is often cited as an example. Redlining was the policy of the federal government refusing to insure mortgages in certain neighborhoods, often Black neighborhoods.

So what do Florida teachers teach?

"They teach the standards — the standards that are adopted by the state of Florida through materials that are approved by the state and school districts," said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's teachers union. "What we teach is the true and accurate and honest history of the United States and of the world. We all recognize that as a country when we were founded, our founding fathers knew we would make mistakes. That's why they started with 'in order to form a more perfect union.'"

The governor wants to give parents the ability to police the classroom and sue if they think a school district is teaching critical race theory.

"We encourage parents to get involved in their child's school," said Spar. "I think what we see from the overwhelming majority of parents in our state is that they are connected to our schools and they know the reality of what is happening in our schools. Our schools are not political forums."

Nine states have passed laws banning critical race theory in public schools. Some, such as in Iowa and New Hampshire, go beyond the classroom and prohibit specific gender and race topics from being used in training for government workers.

DeSantis' proposal would go further and address training in private companies.

"We must protect Florida workers against the hostile work environment that is created when large corporations force their employees to endure CRT-inspired ‘training’ and indoctrination," said a DeSantis statement this week.

He singled out three large businesses in his criticism; defense contractor Raytheon, Bank of America and Google. DeSantis has had videos removed from Google's YouTube platform for comments about masks and COVID-19 that YouTube said "contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities.”

"He has made it a point of going after some big corporations," said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald's Tallahassee Bureau Chief. "I don't know anybody who knows the governor well, who really thinks that this is something that he has believed for a long time. I think these are things that have emerged because they there's an opportunity to reach an audience."

The issue has been credited with deciding elections elsewhere. Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia governor last month, beating former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in an upset.

It was the first statewide GOP win in Virginia in more than a decade. And many consider his staunch criticism of education policies for his victory, including his opposition to teaching critical race theory even though, like in Florida, the theory is not taught in Virginia public schools.

"I think what you need to put this into is the national context," said Politico reporter Gary Fineout. "What we've seen in Florida and throughout the country is that through the pandemic and everything that's been going on over the last year and a half, there has been a great backlash among parents and groups across the country."

Exactly how the governor's ideas translate into legislation remains to be seen. No bill has been filed yet. However, other legislation has been released. A bill in the Florida Senate sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would ban training on “divisive concepts." According to the bill, that includes concepts that the U.S. is "fundamentally racist of sexist."

"The pattern we've watched is that the governor makes big pronouncements and gets big headlines and attracts a lot of outrage and attention and support. And then when it comes to reading the fine print, it's often not the same," Klas said.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.