The conservative agenda that Florida Republicans have unleashed will fundamentally alter public education. That’s why it’s critical now when ingesting this fire hose of bad news to step back and consider the big picture: Where is our education system going? What’s driving these changes, who wins, who loses and what’s the impact on our students, education system and communities?
School vouchers. The voucher bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Monday will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, providing wealthier families a tax subsidy while tilting the scales further away from public education. The measure provides every K-12 school-age child in Florida a voucher or education savings account regardless of family income. That clears the way for tens of thousands of children already in private schools to reap about $8,700 annually apiece. How is Florida expanding school choice by rewarding families who have already opted for private schools? Lawmakers haven’t even agreed on what the expansion would cost or how to pay for it; the estimates are so wildly varying that sponsors put hundreds of millions of dollars into reserves. This is a wholesale giveaway of tax dollars to private industry. And whatever one’s view of the merits, it will siphon resources, students and community support for traditional schools, worsening their ability to compete.
Stigmatizing gays. State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, a former Republican legislator whom DeSantis tapped for the post, is looking to broaden Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act — also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill — by expanding the restrictions on sexual discussions from grades K-3 (where it already applies) through the 12th grade. The 2022 law, which Republicans defended as protecting parental rights, restricts a teacher’s ability to discuss matters pertaining to sexual orientation or gender identity. The law is purposely vague to create a chilling effect so teachers self-censor; extending that climate of fear into middle and high schools will create new anxieties for children and erode a climate of trust between students and the role models they interact with every day. It also will further stigmatize minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. Adolescence is tough enough; this adds to it.
Campus speech. College students and faculty continue to protest two bills that seek a conservative remake in Florida’s higher education system. HB 999 and its Senate companion, SB 266, would prohibit state spending on diversity and equity initiatives; ban majors and courses related to critical race theory and gender studies, among other fields; and give all hiring power to university boards of trustees and presidents. Tenured faculty could face a review at any time to answer charges of “inefficiency” or “insubordination.” The University of South Florida’s faculty senate has condemned both bills, warning the legislation could imperil Florida’s ability to attract top faculty and students and sponsored research. They worry that Florida’s public colleges and universities will follow the lead of K-12 school districts in self-censoring speech, school libraries and campus events in order to avoid Tallahassee’s wrath. And they foresee long-term implications, not only in the value of Florida college degrees, but in the support alumni and communities give these institutions.
These radical changes are only a new floor for Republicans going forward. And while that agenda is playing out in the schools, the health of Florida’s public education system invariably impacts all of society.
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