Florida Education Fights Mirror National Controversies

Florida Education Fights Mirror National Controversies

For the past year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has waged a struggle against what he sees as a left-wing bias in educational institutions in the United States. This week, he escalated the conflict, suggesting he might block popular Advanced Placement (AP) courses from being offered in Florida high schools.

The remarks came just a few days after the nonprofit College Board, which sets the curricula for the dozens of AP courses offered across the country, criticized DeSantis and his administration for blocking the rollout of a pilot AP course on African American history.

DeSantis is widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, challenging former President Donald Trump and other contenders. Engaging in public battles with cultural institutions perceived by many conservatives as biased against them is keeping DeSantis’ name in the news, even though he has not officially announced his candidacy.

The only announced candidates, Trump and Republican former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have both signaled that they, too, will make culture war politics part of their campaigns. This suggests that in the 17 months leading up to the Republican nominating convention in July 2024, American educational institutions can expect to be in the candidates’ crosshairs.

Haley and Trump

Haley, who officially announced her candidacy with a launch event on Wednesday, had already signaled her interest in wading into the education debates.

In a video released earlier in the week, she took aim at the 1619 Project, a program aimed at a broad rethinking of U.S. history with a focus on the effects of hundreds of years of slavery. The project, which has created curricula for high school students, has drawn the ire of conservatives.

In her video, with an image of the 1619 Project’s logo on screen, Haley says, “Some look at our past as evidence that America’s founding principles are bad. They say the promise of freedom is just made up. Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In his first campaign event of the new year, Trump promised to fight “indoctrination” in U.S. schools. He also vowed to cut funding to schools that promote a “leftist” agenda. It’s not a topic that the former president had commonly addressed in the past, suggesting that he believes it’s going to be necessary for him to add it to the mix as he hits the campaign trail for 2024.

Series of fights

DeSantis’ tussle with the College Board is the latest in a series of his high-profile moves to challenge the existing educational system in Florida.

Last month, he took the controversial step of removing nearly half of the trustees at New College of Florida, a small, liberal arts institution in Sarasota that DeSantis accused of being biased against conservatives. He replaced the board members with conservatives tasked with turning the school into a beacon of conservative thought and principles.

Last year, DeSantis signed two bills aimed at elementary and high school education in Florida.

The Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, restricted the ability of public school teachers in Florida to discuss LGBTQ issues in class. It led some schools to temporarily close their libraries for fear that some books might be found to be in violation of the law.

The Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act took aim at instruction in schools and workplace training programs. Specifically, it targeted the teaching of topics such as the enslavement of Black Americans prior to the Civil War, and the suppression of their rights in southern states during the Jim Crow era.

Among other things, DeSantis and the bill’s supporters said it was meant to fight off “woke indoctrination” of students and to eradicate critical race theory, a more than 40-year-old academic concept that says racism is embedded in the U.S. legal system. CRT has become a catchall phrase among conservatives for curricula that point out racial disparities in the country.

AP controversy

AP courses, which allow high school students to earn college credits, are taught in public schools across the country. But the curricula for each of the dozens of different classes are developed by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that also administers well-known standardized tests, including the SAT for college and university entrance.

In 2021, the last year for which full data is available, 1.2 million U.S. public high school graduates — more than one in three — took at least one AP exam. A sufficiently high score on an AP exam is accepted as course credit by many colleges and universities, which can lower the costs of earning a college degree.

DeSantis’ fight with the College Board began last month, when the organization released a preliminary guide for a pilot program offering an AP course in African American history. The course covered a wide variety of issues, but included units on critical race theory, queer theory, and other issues to which DeSantis objected.

AP African American history

DeSantis also called into question the need for an African American history course, saying that state law mandates that African American history be taught as part of broader courses in U.S. history.

The Florida Department of Education released a statement saying it would bar public schools from using the curriculum, saying it is “contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

The College Board later released a significantly altered version of the curriculum that removed many of the units to which DeSantis had objected, earning it criticism for apparently giving in to the Florida governor.

The organization countered that the changes had already been under consideration and were not a capitulation to DeSantis. In a press release, it lashed out at the DeSantis administration, calling the Department of Education’s assessment of the course a “slander” and claiming that administration officials had twisted facts in order to “engineer a political win.”

The College Board did not reply to a request for comment on this story.

DeSantis replies

Speaking at a news conference in Jacksonville, Florida, this week, DeSantis took aim at the College Board.

“Who elected them?” he asked. “It’s not clear to me that this particular operator is the one that’s going to need to be used in the future.”

He said he is in favor of high school students being able to earn college credit, but pointed out that there are a number of other programs that make that possible.

“College credit? Yes. Having that available for everyone? Absolutely,” DeSantis said. “Does it have to be done by the College Board? Or can we utilize some of these other providers who I think have a really, really strong track record?”

Supporters cheer

DeSantis’s assault on the College Board in particular, and educational institutions in general, has delighted his supporters, Dan Backer, counsel for Ready for Ron, a political action committee supporting DeSantis for president, told VOA.

“Ron DeSantis is right. The College Board is shirking its duty to educate young Americans, choosing instead to play the ‘woke’ game and brainwash students with radical leftist propaganda,” he said.

On educational issues more broadly, he said, “Across America, parents and students deserve better, and Ron DeSantis knows it. He is once again showing what true leadership looks like, putting forth a common-sense education platform that prioritizes actual learning above all else — with no side helping of left-wing politics.”

Education advocates troubled

Eric Duncan of The Education Trust told VOA that his nonprofit organization — which works to break down racial and economic barriers to education — views DeSantis’ actions in Florida as a troubling reflection of a broader national trend toward stifling discussion of ugly parts of U.S. history.

“This is just part and parcel of that movement,” said Duncan, who directs the organization’s policy on preschool through high school education. “Our stance is really about trying to protect schools and classrooms from external attacks on the teaching of honest history and of conversations that are reflective of perspectives of different cultures and racial backgrounds.”

He added, “We need safe, supportive classrooms for students of color. Any efforts to censor the teaching of honest history is antithetical to that.”

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Author: Shirley