Under DeSantis, public education under siege in Florida
For many on the far right, “public” education should be both more “private” and more representative of contemporary conservative dogma.
Emblematic of this philosophy is Betsy DeVos, who served as the nation’s education secretary under Donald Trump. A staunch supporter of charter schools (run by public funds) and private religious schools, The New York Times described DeVos as follows: It would be “hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of diverting public money from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos.
If she were still the nation’s top education official, DeVos would certainly find a like-minded compatriot in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. From the start, DeSantis followed the same playbook as DeVos – advocating for privatization at every opportunity.
Over the past three years, Florida’s burgeoning private school voucher program (the largest in the nation) has undergone a radical overhaul. Not only did the program expand its scope and eligibility under DeSantis, but it also benefited from a new method of funding. Instead of relying largely on donations from private corporations (which receive a tax credit), Florida law now allows direct funding of private school vouchers from general state revenues.
In DeSantis’ view, any type of public funding automatically makes the “private” recipient of the voucher (including religious schools) another part of the “public” education system.
Politically savvy proponents have long touted private school vouchers as giving students a clear “choice” among what they see as “failing” public schools – shrewdly presented as helping mostly low-income minority students . But when Governor DeSantis talks about all parents being able to use public money to send their children to the schools of their choice, without government influence, he is really talking about increased privatization. In fact, pushed to its latest iteration, a program that funnels more and more public dollars into private schools is the very antithesis of universal public education.
The governor’s campaign to put his imprimatur on K-12 education doesn’t stop at funneling more money into private schools. This includes mandating what is taught (or not) in public schools and the blatant politicization of local school boards.
What’s particularly telling about the new laws outlining what teachers can say in classrooms about race, sexual orientation, gender identity or civics is that they seem to fall squarely on public schools, not on private religious schools or most charter schools that receive public funds but operate outside. curriculum policies established by local school boards.
There was a time when local school boards focused largely on the concerns of teachers, parents, and local civic groups. No more. Under DeSantis, the national culture wars have reached the classroom, and board members are forced to contend with a series of new laws designed to rid public schools of what the governor calls “woke ideology.” .
More from Carl Ramey:
Supreme Court rulings and DeSanti antics threaten separation of church and state
A Gator fan’s tired lament: The tradition of amateurism is fading from college sports
Legislature focused on cultural issues to advance DeSantis’ personal political agenda
The battle to reshape local school boards is multifaceted. At one point, DeSantis threatened to withhold school board members’ salaries if they resisted his anti-masking rule. Then, he signed a law fixing the duration of the mandates of the members of the board of directors. Even more telling, it created a new office within the Department of Education with unilateral power to grant charter school applications without any input from local authorities.
Now he races around the state to endorse candidates for school board seats, contests that are nominally nonpartisan. And his gubernatorial re-election campaign circulated a questionnaire for school board members to gauge their allegiance to his “anti-reawakening” agenda.
School board members are elected officials who should expect to deal with contentious and even politically charged issues. On the other hand, classroom teachers are career professionals who shouldn’t be caught in today’s partisan crossfire.
Yet Florida teachers are literally scrambling to figure out how best to handle Tallahassee’s new dictates. And, if they don’t get it right, their districts are now facing state-sanctioned lawsuits from disgruntled parents who claim to have emotionally hurt their children.
Florida’s new laws intended to cleanse our classrooms of so-called “woke” attitudes on cultural issues are not only reprehensible, they are vague and confusing – having the effect not only of driving qualified teachers out of their jobs, but also of silence those who remain.
Adding insult to injury, the governor’s response to the unfolding teacher shortage is to: (a) degrade formal teacher training; and (b) replace their dwindling ranks with uncertified veterans, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers. Why not? It’s cheaper than paying them what they’re worth.
Carl Ramey, a retired Washington communications lawyer and monthly columnist for The Sun, lives in Gainesville.
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