JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. spoke at the Duval Charter School at Baymeadows in Jacksonville. Signage at the event read “Florida, the Education State.”

The governor said there would be two big announcements at the day’s event, and saying that since taking office, Florida had “worked really hard” to improve education in Florida. As in the past, the governor noted different initiatives on civics, parental power, and how a four year degree wasn’t necessarily the only important educational path.

He said teacher salary increases had been a focus of budget as well, with Florida spending $2 billion to increase the salaries, saying that while there was a national teacher shortage, but Florida had less of a shortage than the country.

The governor said that as a teacher in Florida, going to a state institution, students shouldn’t have loan debt due to low tuition costs. He said efforts to remove common core and change testing procedures had been undertaken to make it easier and faster to help students achieve and get educational feedback. The removal of the Florida Standards Assessment and switch to progress monitoring was passed into law in 2022.

DeSantis also said he would continue to work with the legislature to address teacher pay rates in Florida. The governor said the state had already hit its minimum goal for average teacher salaries, which were by law set at $47,500 from an effort after he took office.

He said now that the goal had been met, the state would put more funds into a program to raise salaries of current teachers. DeSantis said Florida teachers needed to be protected for following state law, rather than face actions from school boards over political or policy-focused disagreements.

The governor also said that schools were being directed to lean on teacher empowerment and took a moment to express dissatisfaction with children being on their phones while in class, being distracted from learning. He said he would be “advancing proposals” to protect teacher salaries from automatic union dues. DeSantis said it should be a choice, not an automatic deduction and that there should be more transparency.

“A school union has a responsibility to notify the members of the cost of membership, we also believe you should not have the school be a focus of school union politics, and politicking,” DeSantis said. “Handing out literature and doing all of this stuff. Do that on your own time, not on the public’s time. We also believe, and will be reflected in this proposal, if you’re working in a school union, you should not make more than the school’s highest paid teacher.”

DeSantis said that it was unfair for “partisan groups” to get “special privileges.” Continuing to discuss school management and administration, DeSantis said he wanted to reform school board policy as far as salary and term limits, setting the limit to eight years rather than 12 or longer. He repeated previous commentary that all elected positions should have term limits, including Congress and promised new legislation to come that would set the term limits for school board members.

Additionally, he said people running for school board should be able to have partisan elections and that people should be able to identify themselves how they’d like. He said it was odd to him that in some districts that “voted for me by 40 points, yet they’re electing people to school board who are totally the opposite philosophy.”

DeSantis turned the floor over to Education Comm. Diaz, who said he was fortunate to be in his position and said DeSantis was the “education governor” and that Floridians were lucky to live in “the education state.”

He praised the additional funding for education and efforts to support parents’ rights and teachers’ rights, saying that DeSantis had “not only talked the talk but walked the walk,” when it came to investing in teachers.

“For those that are obstructing this, whether school unions or administrations, to get out of the way and make sure that these dollars are going directly to teachers’ pocketbooks,” Diaz said. “But it’s not only about pay, it’s about the regard for teachers, the respect for teachers.”

The commissioner said it important for teachers to feel supported and that DeSantis “had their back” for teachers to do their jobs.

Speakers who were at the event said there were issues with teachers unions being involved in politics, including some who had “advocated strongly” for mask mandates and vaccination. State policy had already made it against policy to have those requirements, which then was made into law. It is notable that DeSantis himself endorsed multiple races for school board in the November election, also a political factor in school administration.

The briefing follows a legislative announcement from Florida lawmakers that would allow what they call “universal school choice” between public or charter schools. If passed, House Bill 1 would allow any Florida student to be eligible for state funds for private tuition, no matter what their families’ incomes.

Florida’s education department has also been in the news in recent days due to a rejection of a pilot program for a new Advanced Placement African American Studies class from the College Board. Florida leaders rejected the course, saying it violated the state’s laws and contained historically inaccurate information.

During the question and answer session after the briefing, DeSantis and Diaz were asked about the rejection.

The governor said one of the lessons in the rejected AP course was “queer theory,” and said that it wasn’t important to Black history, also saying that teaching “intersectionality” was political.

“That’s a political agenda, so we’re on, that’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards. We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t think they should have an agenda imposed on them,” DeSantis said. “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

Another question on the program was focused on a rejected section for “movements for Black lives.”

DeSantis said that section had included a movement for abolishing prisons, and asked how that could be taught as fact, saying it was unfair to say abolishing prisons was linked to Black experience. He said he didn’t think that was true, and that Black people wanted law and order just like everyone else.

“That is more ideology being used, under the guise of history, and we want to do history. That’s what our standards for Black history are,” DeSantis said. “It’s just cut and dry history, you learn all of the basics, you learn all of the great figures. I just view it as American history, I don’t view it as separate history.”

He described Black leaders that should be taught as those that have “stood up when it wasn’t easy, they all deserve to be taught,” while teaching that prisons should be abolished was not.

In a question about 2022’s House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education law, asking about messaging from the governor’s office and state officials about the purpose of the bill versus its actual legislative language, DeSantis said it was down to corporate media issues, not messaging problems.

“I don’t think it’s poor messaging, I think you have corporate outlets, media outlets, who push agendas,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, everyone was very clear on it, some may not be, but I think the election results were a good determination that those narratives were rejected.”

He said if media is “telling you something that you think seems a little off,” then the media was advancing an agenda and that Florida “would continue to do what’s right.” DeSantis said they would not be swayed “by false media narratives.”

Another question on the messaging asked if the legislature had messaged the way it had was to appeal to anti-gay political groups.

DeSantis fired back, saying that “having any sexual content in elementary school is inappropriate, it’s wrong.”

“I think the gender ideology that is very problematic when you have very young kids, and you have a teacher saying ‘well what gender would you like to be?’ No,” DeSantis continued. “These are impressionable young kids. You’re trying to tell them that somehow they can just switch to just be a different gender. So I think that can be incredibly harmful. At the end of the day it’s not about individuals, adults, it’s about teaching young kids.”

The governor said teachers should focus on math, and reading, and “things that were really important,” rather than gender ideology. He said underlying the political back and forths, it wasn’t just in K-12 schools but also in colleges and universities.

“Some say it’s to train students in a certain worldview, to use schools as an instrument of social justice, social change,” DeSantis said. “There’s others, like Florida believes, that it’s really about education in the classical sense, it’s about the pursuit of truth, it’s about teaching kids how to think and presenting facts to them and letting them draw conclusions.”

The governor said that there’s a disagreement in the country about what the purpose of education is.

“I can tell you, most universities in the country have gone in the direction of using education for ideology and for politics, and they’ve moved away from using education in the classical sense,” DeSantis said. “We believe in education in the classical sense. We believe it can be liberating for people to go through that. How tired is it to sit there and think that just imposing some rote talking points from whatever the political skirmishes of the day, that that is a lasting education? I don’t think it is at all.”

DeSantis said issues with enduring relevance were things students could take for the rest of their lives, while teaching gender ideology to a second grader was political and would not stand the test of time.