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Florida | DeSantis on a crusade against the world of education



Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is preparing to run for President of the United States next year, has become an increasingly vocal culture warrior, vowing to attack liberal orthodoxy and its champions, whether they are at Disney, Martha’s Vineyard, or state public libraries.

But it is perhaps in classrooms and on college campuses that his crusade has been most spectacular. It banned the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, limited what schools and employers can teach about racism and other aspects of history, and rejected math textbooks en masse for what the state called “indoctrination.” More recently, he banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies courses for high school students.

On Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, took on the education establishment in the most aggressive way, announcing a plan to overhaul the state’s higher education system that would eliminate what he called it “ideological conformity”. If passed, Western Civilization courses will be mandatory, diversity and equity programs will be eliminated, and tenure protections will be reduced.


Ron DeSantis, Republican Governor of Florida

His plan for the state’s education system is in line with other recent measures: banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, sending a plane full of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and removing favors enjoyed by Disney, a once politically untouchable giant of Florida industry, for half a century.

His pugilistic approach was rewarded by voters, who re-elected him by a margin of 19 percentage points in November.

The case of New College of Florida

Reporting to State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, one of 28 publicly funded state and community colleges, on Tuesday, DeSantis promised to turn the page on programs he says are “ hostile to academic freedom” in Florida’s higher education system. These programs “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism,” DeSantis said. “It’s not what we think is appropriate for the state of Florida. »

He had already set about revamping the leadership of the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota that is struggling to attract students but defines itself as a place for “free thinkers.” It is considered one of the most progressive of Florida’s 12 public universities.

Mr. DeSantis pointed to low enrollment and test scores at New College as part of the reason for his request for the change.

If it was a private school making those choices, that’s fine, I mean, what are you going to do? But this school is funded by taxpayers’ money.

Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, on New College of Florida

The college’s board, with six new Conservative members appointed by Mr DeSantis, voted in a heated meeting on Tuesday afternoon to replace the president and agreed to appoint Richard Corcoran, a former education commissioner of the state, as interim president from March.

As Mr. Corcoran will not be available to perform his duties until March, the board has appointed an interim for the interim, Bradley Thiessen, director of institutional research at the college. Mr. Corcoran will replace Patricia Okker, a longtime English teacher and college administrator, who was appointed in 2021.


Former New College of Florida president Patricia Okker bidding farewell to colleagues on Tuesday

While expressing her love for the college and its students, Okker called the change a hostile takeover. “I don’t believe students are indoctrinated here at New College,” she said. “They get an education. They read Marx and they discuss Marx. They take courses in world religions. They don’t become Buddhists in February to become Christians in March. »

Mr. DeSantis also announced on Tuesday that he had asked the Legislature to immediately release $15 million to recruit new professors and provide scholarships at New College.

In total, he asked the legislature for US$100 million a year for state universities.

“We walk the talk,” he said.

New College is small, with nearly 700 students, but the redesign reverberated throughout Florida, as did Ron DeSantis’ proposed reform.

The critics fuse

Andrew Gothard, president of the state faculty union, said the governor’s statements about the state’s higher education system were perhaps the most aggressive yet.

“There is this idea that Ron DeSantis thinks he and the legislature have a right to tell Florida students what classes they can take and what programs,” said Gothard, who is on leave from his professorship at Florida Atlantic University.

[DeSantis] On the one hand, it says it believes in freedom, and then it passes and proposes laws and policies that are the exact opposite.

Florida Teachers Union President Andrew Gothard

At the council meeting, students, parents and teachers defended the school and criticized the council members for acting unilaterally without their advice.

Betsy Braden, who came out as the parent of a transgender student, said her daughter thrived at school.

“It seems like a lot of students who come here have determined that they don’t necessarily fit in at other schools,” Braden. “They accept their differences and show incredible courage to chart their course. They prosper, they thrive, they go out into the world to improve society. All of this is well documented. Why would you take that away from us? »

Education, now more favorable to Republicans?

Since George W. Bush introduced himself in 2000 as “the president of education”, no Republican candidate for the Oval Office has made school reform a central point of his program. That may be because, for years, Democrats had a double-digit advantage in education polls.

But since the pandemic began in 2020, when many Democratic-led states have kept schools closed longer than Republican states, often under pressure from teachers’ unions, some polls suggest the field of education is now more Republican-friendly. And Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, after a campaign focused on “parents’ rights” in public schools, was seen as a signal of the political power of education among young people. voters.

Ron DeSantis’ attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs coincides with recent criticism of these programs by conservative organizations and think tanks.

Examples of such initiatives include on-campus sessions devoted to “microaggressions” – subtle remarks usually based on ethnicity or gender – as well as the requirement for applicants for a professorship to submit statements outlining their commitment to diversity.

“It’s like giving people a political oath,” DeSantis said Tuesday. He also attacked the programs saying they “drain resources and drive up costs.”

Civic education

Proponents of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and diverse curricula say they help students understand the world at large as well as their own biases and beliefs, improving their ability to engage in personal relationships as well as in the workplace.

Mr. DeSantis’ embrace of civics as well as the creation of special civics programs at several of the state’s 12 public universities coincides with the growth of similar programs around the country, some of which are partially funded by conservative donors.

These programs emphasize the study of Western civilization and economics, as well as the thought of Western philosophers, often focusing on the Greeks and Romans. Critics of these programs claim that they sometimes gloss over the pitfalls of Western thinking and ignore the philosophies of non-Western civilizations.

“The core curriculum must be grounded in real history, real philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,” DeSantis said. We don’t want students to go through this, at taxpayer expense, and get a degree in zombie studies. »

This article was first published in the New York Times.

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