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DeSantis wins his battle over CRT and wokeness. Detractors ask, at whose expense?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Governor Ron DeSantis has scored a critical victory in his war against so-called “wokeness.” The Republican-controlled legislature is sending him a bill that says employers cannot compel their employees to participate in training that can make the employee feel bad; schools cannot teach subjects like history or race in a way that can make students feel the same. In addition to fighting wokeness, the legislature is also allowing greater flexibility in challenging school books, and term-limiting school board members.

The debate over how issues on race, sex and history are taught was embattled, and embittered, with lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer noting that bills like these did not come out of thin air.

“WOKE. Stop Woke. Why is it bad to be awake? Why is it bad to be conscious of things, to be aware of what is happening, what has happened?” Farmer said during debate over the bill Wednesday in the Senate.

While the words “WOKE” and “Critical Race Theory” are not explicitly mentioned in either proposal, the words of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has championed the legislation—ring loud and clear. DeSantis pitched a bill called the STOP WOKE Act and has repeatedly decried so-called wokeness and Critical Race Theory which is an academic framework that examines how policy has been shaped through racism. It’s not taught in K-12 schools, despite accusations to the contrary. Republicans have accused Democrats and journalists of misrepresenting bills over culture war issues all session, often relying on the argument that the words used to describe such measures aren't in the proposals. Yet as Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell pointed out, the language of the bill and what is spoken aloud is equally as important as what’s implied by the bill, and how it will be applied.

“It talks about meritocracy, fairness and the virtues of being colorblind," he said. "Being colorblind allows you to ignore the fact that I am here."

This lawmaking session has seen women, LGBTQ people, and minorities targeted through a series of bills on abortion, sexuality and gender, history and race. Republican Sen. Manny Diaz argued his party’s intentions are being misconstrued.

“They [students] need to know the facts. We’re not trying to cover them up. But we need to provide students that can think debate and inform their own opinions," Diaz said, defending his sponsorship of the "Individual Freedom" bill which states employers cannot compel employees, as a condition of employment, to take any mandatory teaching that "compels such individual to believe specified concepts constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin."

Diaz asked his fellow lawmakers to trust that his intentions are good, but that remains a hard sell given the GOP backlash following the high-profile killings of Black people by police, angst over the New York Times's 1619 project which reexamines the legacy of slavery; and the increasing visibility of LGBTQ people, coupled with the governor's own comments.

The hostility also extends to the classroom and schoolhouse where angry parents are challenging textbooks, library books, and classroom materials they may not personally agree with. And a proposal that opens those materials up for even more scrutiny is also on the way to the governor.

“We as a legislature allocate millions of dollars for both instructional materials, and materials in our libraries and media centers. Local communities should have a right to know and provide feedback on what materials they’re putting in front of our children," said Republican Sen. Joe Gruters who is also the chairman of the state GOP.

Adding another blow to schools—Republicans have agreed to term limit local school board members to 12 years in office, following a fight over school closures during the pandemic.

For Governor Ron DeSantis, it’s another win. And his success in this session on culture war issues leaves his detractors to question what the long-term cost of what they hope are short-term victories will be.

Corrected: March 11, 2022 at 11:33 AM EST
The original version of this story incorrectly attributed the quote about being colorblind to Sen. Randolph Bracy. The story has been corrected to properly attribute Sen. Bobb Powell with the quote.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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