Inside DeSantis’s war on public education
"The audience is the hardcore Republican primary voter," says Judd Legum.
A quick note from Aaron: I really enjoyed joining Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld yesterday on Daily Kos’s The Brief podcast to talk all things GOP and right-wing media. Watch our roughly 45-minute conversation below.
If you enjoy that discussion, you’ll like today’s edition of my pod, which features Dan Froomkin of Press Watch. Subscribe to my YouTube page to watch it as soon as it goes live later today, or subscribe to the Aaron Rupar Show wherever you get your podcasts!
By Thor Benson
Ron DeSantis is on a mission to impose his regressive worldview on Florida schools. We’ve seen pictures and videos of empty bookshelves because education officials are worried about violating a new Florida law restricting discussion of race and identity. He’s also gotten into a fight with the College Board over an AP African American studies course, and completely taken over a formerly progressive institution called the New College.
The irony is it’s actually DeSantis who’s trying to indoctrinate students by sheltering them from uncomfortable but important truths, like America’s history of racism. And yet his authoritarian approach to education clearly has appeal on the American right. The fight against “wokeness” is central to DeSantis’s likely (albeit already floundering) presidential run, and other Republican governors are following his lead.
Judd Legum, the journalist behind the terrific newsletter Popular Information, has been covering DeSantis’s efforts to change the Florida school system in great detail. I thought it’d be interesting to talk to him about what DeSantis has been up to, and we connected on the phone a few weeks ago. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.
Working with great contributors like Thor requires resources. To support this work, please click the button below and sign up to get our coverage of politics and media directly in your inbox three times a week.
You’ve been closely covering what’s going on with Ron DeSantis trying to reshape Florida’s education system. What have you found most striking thus far?
Fundamentally what’s going on is that you have a governor who is really basing a lot of his political messaging around the idea that he’s a champion of academic freedom. He talks about that quite a bit.
But when you look at what he’s actually doing — all the way from pre-K up to college and graduate school — he’s imposing extraordinary restrictions on what books people can read, what teachers are allowed to say, and what students can even major in.
As time goes on these kinds of restrictions just get more severe and intense. He’s really seemed to embrace this as a winning political strategy.
RELATED FROM PUBLIC NOTICE: DeSantis declares war on the free press
Can you explain why we’ve seen these pictures and videos of classrooms where all of the books have been removed from the shelves?
There are a few different causes. There was a bill passed last year that sounds pretty innocuous. It just says if a book’s going to be in a library, it has to be approved by a media specialist, which is what they call librarians in the Florida school system. That doesn’t sound too bad, but then the Florida Department of Education released a rule that said, “When we say libraries, we don’t just mean the library that the school shares. We mean all of the classroom libraries, too.”
The reason why that’s important is because while librarians are generally involved in selecting books that are in the library, these classroom libraries were created by the teachers. They get donations or bring books from their houses. It’s a labor of love for many of them. The state is now saying you really can’t have this kind of classroom library unless every single book is reviewed by a media specialist, but because of budget cuts a lot of these schools don’t even have one.
In the training that was produced by the Florida Department of Education, it says that if you have the wrong book, they may consider it pornography, which means you could be charged with a third degree felony. That’s a very serious charge. Involuntary manslaughter is a third degree felony in Florida. I think a lot of teachers heard this and took their classroom libraries offline. Actually, in most cases it wasn’t just the teacher hearing this. It was school districts. Having seen the law and understanding the training, they issued memorandum instructing the teachers to pack up or make their classroom libraries inaccessible until this review.
DeSantis says it’s not happening though.
It’s definitely happening, so I’m not sure why he’s saying that. Just to give you an example: In Duval County they have 1.6 million books. Except for the elementary schools, they don’t even really have media specialists in Duval County. They have about 54 in the whole district. So far they’ve been able to review 6,000 of their 1.6 million books. The books that aren’t approved are not available to students.
I have people who continue to send me photos from Duval County of empty shelves in classrooms and elsewhere. They’ve been at this for a few weeks and they’ve gotten through 6,000. It’s not going to be solved any time soon.
DeSantis was also involved in a fight with the College Board over AP courses. The College Board claimed their curriculum wasn’t changed because of DeSantis’s actions, but that turned out not to be true. What’s going on there?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Public Notice to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.