TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When it comes to education in Florida, there are two different stories, based on who tells it. One story is of a fierce commitment to educational freedom, based on facts and not misinterpretations of history.
It’s a version of reality where teachers are told to teach, not to indoctrinate. It was most recently a version of events publicly praised in Orlando, where the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, published its first Educational Freedom Report Card and ranked Florida the best in the country.
The Sept. 9 event drew Gov. Ron DeSantis to the city to talk up the state’s education policies, which have become more politically controversial of late.
The other take on how Florida’s education system is moving says the state has passed educational gag orders. PEN America, a non-profit organization around since 1922, tracks what it says are state legislators’ efforts to “restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 and higher education.”
The new state education laws have already drawn fire from Florida academics and students, even in the same week as the Heritage Foundation awarded Florida its ranking.
Three days before the Heritage Foundation awarded Florida the top ranking for educational freedom, including for its reported protection of educational transparency and freedom of inquiry, a professor at the University of South Florida opened a lawsuit against the state, arguing that recent legislation did the opposite.
Professor Adriana Novoa, joined by USF student Sam Rechek and the school’s First Amendment Forum, filed in court saying HB 7 in particular would harm academic freedom. Novoa and Rechek asked a federal judge to declare HB 7 unconstitutional, based on grounds that it limits free speech, academic freedom, and would ban faculty from not only researching the prohibited topics related to race and other CRT subjects, but punish them for doing so.
The suit alleges that the law will prevent teachers and students from researching the topics, but also discussing them at all in classroom settings, infringing upon students’ and professors’ academic freedoms.
After the event, a portion of a speech from Gov. DeSantis was released by the Executive Office of the Governor, along with a video of him speaking at the Orlando gathering.
“When other states were locking people down and keeping their kids out of school, we made sure kids were in school because we put their well-being before politics,” DeSantis said in part. “Florida’s schoolchildren are thriving because we invest in our students and we empower parents to decide what learning environment is best for their kids. Thank you to The Heritage Foundation for recognizing our success and ranking Florida number one in the nation for education freedom.”
DeSantis and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. were both featured speakers at the Sept. 9 event. The CRT ban legislation was co-sponsored by Diaz before he took office as commissioner.
In Florida, PEN America says two new laws amount to those gag orders, House Bill 7, which bans or limits educational discussion of race, sex, color, and national origin in public schools both K-12 and higher education, and House Bill 1557, which limits discussion of LGBTQ issues and topics in public K-12 schools.
The release from the governor’s office also references how the report “lauds Florida’s dedication to education transparency, regulatory freedom, and return on investment,” as well as the Heritage Foundation’s praise for Florida’s laws rejecting critical race theory, “championing of school choice,” and state education savings accounts. The Heritage Foundation’s ranking system did list Florida’s transparency level as, to some extent, contingent on its stance toward CRT.
“Florida ranks first among states for academic transparency. Florida lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency and rejecting critical race theory’s pernicious ideas in 2022,” the Foundation wrote in its report card. “State officials approved a proposal that prohibits teachers and administrators from compelling students to affirm the prejudiced ideas of critical race theory.”
It also says Florida has a high ranking for regulatory freedom, which it describes as a state which allows teachers and students to “pursue education largely devoid of red tape,” and allowing teacher license reciprocity from other states.
The Heritage Foundation said one way Florida can keep its statewide No. 1 ranking would be by “limiting growth in non-teaching staff, particularly chief diversity officers, and continuing to embrace alternative routes for teachers to K–12 classrooms or by ending certification requirements altogether.”
In a similar vein, PEN America describes the recent education bills passed in Florida and other states as a form of censorship, adding comment about not only HB 7 and HB 1557, but another bill which made changes to school board regulations and school library material policies.
“Some educational censorship bills contain provisions designed to make it easier to challenge and remove library content that offends an individual’s sensibilities,” PEN America said. “For example, Florida’s HB 1467, which became law in 2022, contains two important provisions relevant for school librarians.”
The education organization also said “the second type of gag order bills would prohibit the promotion, endorsement, or inculcation of particular ideas or concepts,” naming HB 7 as a “good example” of such orders.
Similarly, Florida’s HB 1557 is described by PEN America as the “most highly-publicized education gag order” of 2022, saying it’s an example of not only instruction being targeted for changes related to U.S. history and contemporary American culture, but targeting bills with a “heightened focus on LGBTQ+ issues and identities.”
Regarding education reforms that also affect higher education, PEN America points to Senate Bill 7044, which changed policies regarding tenure and accreditation. PEN America lists SB 7044 as a law that “undermines” higher education in the state and makes it harder for colleges and universities to get federal student aid. DeSantis’ Democratic rival in the November governor’s race spoke out against the changes to education policy in Florida.
“Under Governor DeSantis, Florida’s students are starting off the school year down 9,000 teachers and staff members. And new laws he’s pushed have politicized our classrooms, making the job even harder,” Charlie Crist, most recently a U.S. Congressman for Florida, said in August. “Not only has he failed students, but he’s failed our educators every step of the way. Now he’s taking a victory lap on his four years of failure—it’s unconscionable.”
As of recent data, Florida has a more than 4,000 teaching positions open, with thousands of other support staff positions waiting to be filled. WFLA.com has requested a more current count of vacant positions from the Florida Department of Education, but has not yet received that data.
He went further, saying DeSantis is not only politicizing classrooms, but that the governor was “anti-education” with teacher pay ranked 48th in the nation despite a record $22 billion state budget surplus. Crist noted his past as the state’s last elected Education Commissioner and promised to fight to keep politics out of the classroom.
DeSantis has said he remains committed to empowering parents in Florida’s schools, but what any future education policies may take shape as are not yet known.