TALLAHASSEE, Florida — As he thinks about running for president in 2024, Gov. Ron DeSantis is going all out against what he calls “trendy ideologies” in education. He has promised to cut funding for programs that help minorities get into and stay in the state’s universities and colleges.
His agenda and the other new Florida laws he has pushed through seem to be part of a nationwide trend of conservative states passing laws that make it harder for public schools and universities to teach about systemic racism, critical race theory, sexism, and LGBTQ issues.
Education Week says that at least 15 states passed similar laws last year, and 26 others were looking at bills that would limit these types of lessons.
Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said, “Florida has become this incubator for conservative policies that other conservative states are looking at and expanding.”
DeSantis has asked universities to tell him how much money was spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, training, classes, and critical race theory. He said that without state money, these programs would “wither on the vine” and told the Legislature that schools can’t pay for them.
“These things are bad for academic freedom and waste resources, leading to higher costs as these bureaucracies grow,” DeSantis said, but he didn’t give any proof that they were growing. “How can there be such a big increase in bureaucracy without more money going to where it really counts, in the classroom?”
Universities told DeSantis that they spend less than 1% of their budgets on these kinds of programs.
A little over two years ago, a diversity committee of the Florida Board of Governors, led by DeSantis appointee Brian Lamb, told universities that their strategic plans “should prioritize DEI and provide clear direction for total integration of DEI initiatives throughout the institution.”
This change in policy by DeSantis seems to have happened around the same time that Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow and director at the conservative Manhattan Institute, put out a model bill in January to get rid of DEI and critical race theory.
He and Ilya Shapiro, another member of the Manhattan Institute, worked with Michael Beienberg of the Goldwater Institute to write the plan that DeSantis seems to be following.
Rufo tweeted, “We’ve made a plan for state lawmakers to get rid of DEI bureaucracies and bring back colorblind equality in public universities.” “The truth is simple: red states shouldn’t pay for racialist ideology, bureaucratic capture, or the destruction of their public academies.”
DeSantis stepped up his attack by using the small, progressive school in Sarasota with fewer than 700 students and 90 full-time teachers as an example.
He put six people on the New College Board of Trustees. Four of them were right-wing activists from out of state who were connected to conservative think tanks and private colleges like Hillsdale in Michigan. Rufo was one of the people chosen.
Within a few weeks, they fired the college’s president and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a friend of DeSantis and a former House Speaker. They also said that they would change the curriculum to be more in line with their conservative beliefs.
Rufo later made fun of the diversity programs at Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of South Florida. He said they used “radical DEI programming” to separate students by race and that UCF’s diversity program would lose its money.
“In hiring, admissions, student programs, and scholarship opportunities, public universities have set up a system of racial discrimination and segregation,” Rufo wrote on Twitter. “They are breaking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in a brazen way, and they need to stop.”
Andrea Guzman, UCF’s vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, told Rufo that UCF is “against all kinds of discrimination and brainwashing.” She said she was hired in 2021 to make a new program called “inclusive excellence” for people with disabilities, members of the military and veterans, and people who are the first in their families to go to college.
Guzman said that UCF is committed to educating “free-thinking, talented students who go on to make valuable contributions to Florida’s workforce and the global economy.” She also said that she and her staff constantly review policies and programs to make sure they comply with state and federal laws and accreditation standards.
Carlos Guillermo Smith, a former Orlando representative who went to UCF and now works for Equality Florida, responded on Twitter by saying, “Ron DeSantis’s attacks on academic freedom will put Florida’s colleges and universities under siege. New College was just the beginning.”
On top of all that, DeSantis’s Department of Education turned down the College Board’s pilot AP African American Studies program and went even further by suggesting that the state could stop buying AP courses for students and using SAT college entrance scores.
The governor has also worked to get rid of tenure for college and university professors and stop unions from taking dues out of teachers’ paychecks automatically.
“It’s sad that it turned into a political issue when it shouldn’t have,” said House Majority Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa. “It should be about the teachers, the parents, and the students, and making sure that the government doesn’t get in the way of history being taught correctly, and not about Gov. Ron DeSantis making those decisions for Florida parents.”
A nonprofit group called PEN America, which has been fighting for freedom of speech for 100 years, said that the governor’s plans were “a grave threat to free speech and academic freedom” at Florida’s public colleges and universities.
In a prepared statement, Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said, “These proposals are nothing more than an attempt to replace the autonomy of higher education institutions with the orders of elected officials.”
Paul Ortiz, president of the University of Florida chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said that what DeSantis and his allies are doing is “terribly demoralizing” to faculty and staff, including librarians and counselors.
“Counselors are especially hard hit because they work with the people who are being targeted,” Ortiz said, referring to Blacks, women, other minorities, and LGBTQ people. “It’s already hard on them, and now this attack is making things worse.”
Ortiz said that diversity programs don’t work the way DeSantis and Rufo say they do. “These programs aren’t meant to hire minorities; they’re meant to hire the best people for the jobs.”
He said that their goal is to change hundreds of years of laws and institutions that were made to hurt people of color. “That hasn’t changed until the last 20 years.”
The Stop WOKE Act, which limits teaching about race and racism, and the Parental Rights in Education Act, which opponents call “Don’t Say Gay” because it makes it illegal to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grades, are also having a big impact on K–12 public schools.
School districts are taking books off the library shelves and banning them, and teachers are scrambling to change their lesson plans so they don’t break the new laws that limit how race, gender identity, and sexual orientation can be talked about and taught.
In November, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker blocked parts of the Stop WOKE Act because he thought they went against the right to free speech and were too vague. He said that the law was “positively dystopian” and full of Doublespeak, a word that George Orwell used in his book 1984.
Black lawmakers and community leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, marched on Tallahassee on Wednesday to protest not only his decisions about education but also his administration’s plans to stop transgender youths from getting medical treatment.
The Rev. Lowman Oliver of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Orlando said, “I want people to know to be careful because if he does it to us, he will do it to all other minorities.” “We, the American people, are better than what he stands for,” she said.