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The politics and policies behind Ron DeSantis's reshaping of Florida education

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford. Educators have voiced concerns about promoting conservative ideologies through the state's teacher civics training programs. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford. Educators have voiced concerns about promoting conservative ideologies through the state's teacher civics training programs. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Governor Ron DeSantis is changing public education in Florida.

“We will make sure parents can send their kids to school to get an education not an indoctrination," he said.

How are political decisions made in Tallahassee playing out when it comes to actual teaching and learning in local school districts?

Kurt Browning was once Florida's Republican Secretary of State. He's now superintendent of Pasco County schools.

“When I became superintendent in 2012, the education law book was about an inch thick," Browning said. "Today, it's almost two inches thick, which is just an indication."

Today, On Point: What's really going on in Florida K-12 classrooms.

Guests

Jeff Solochek, education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. (@JeffSolochek)

Also Featured

Kurt Browning, Pasco County, Florida superintendent of schools.

Brian Covey, former substitute teacher.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Ron Desantis's second term as Florida governor started with a celebration of his impact on Florida schools. In his first term, the governor said he was just getting started. From his inaugural address in January:

DeSANTIS: We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups.

CHAKRABARTI: So once again, that's from the governor's most recent inaugural address. So let's go back to his first term. In 2019, DeSantis issued an executive order to expand school choice. He also approved a bill that allows some parents to choose any school for their child, and it would be paid for with a taxpayer funded voucher system. In February of 2019, DeSantis said, quote, If the taxpayer is paying for education, it's public education.

DeSANTIS: It doesn't matter if you're going to the district managed school that you're zoned for. It doesn't matter if you're going to a public magnet, a public charter. If you take a tax credit scholarship and go to a private school, or if you use an essay for home school. To me, that is all the public's commitment to make sure that our kids have the best education.

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CHAKRABARTI: DeSantis also proposed a civics test as a requirement for high school graduation. He eliminated Common Core education standards for Florida and replaced it with state-based benchmarks for excellent student thinking, which he said would support his focus on civics and American history in 2021. Governor DeSantis turned his attention from testing American history to how it is taught.

DeSANTIS: We have a responsibility to stand for the truth, to stand for what's right. And we're doing that. And we've put more resources and emphasis on teaching civics, on teaching people about American history. But we also have to protect people and protect our kids from some very pernicious ideologies that are trying to be forced upon them all across the country.

CHAKRABARTI: In June 2021, Florida's Board of Education passed a rule banning the teaching of critical race theory. April 2022, Governor DeSantis signed the Stop Woke Act, which coopted language often found in more liberal spheres of education, saying that students must not feel, quote, guilt, anguish or other signs of psychological distress while learning American history. Here's the governor at a meeting with the Board of Education.

DeSANTIS: There's really outrageous things going on about what they're doing by basically using critical race theory to bring ideology and political activism as it to the forefront of education. That is not what we need to be doing in Florida. We need to be doing educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them with ideology.

CHAKRABARTI: Recall we're focusing right now on Ron DeSantis, his first term as Florida governor and like every other governor. He was also managing the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Florida was among the first states to bring students back into classrooms at the beginning of the 2020 school year. Ron DeSantis also signed an executive order prohibiting schools from mandating masks.

And in August of 2021, slightly more than half of Floridians supported a parent's right to decide whether their kids should wear masks, according to Florida Atlantic University. And it's that issue of parent choice that led to a major piece of legislation in 2022. On March 28th of that year, Governor DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, which became known across the country as the Don't Say Gay bill. It banned classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

DeSANTIS: We will continue to recognize that in the state of Florida, parents have a fundamental role in the education, health care and well-being of their children. We will not move from that. I don't care what corporate media outlets say. I don't care what Hollywood says. I don't care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I'm not backing down.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in November of 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis won reelection in a landslide, capturing 60% of the vote in Florida. And, of course, speculation is rife about what the governor's national ambitions might be. So today, we're going to explore Governor Ron DeSantis's ongoing impact on K-through-12 education in Florida.

And typically how the laws passed in Tallahassee are actually changing instruction in classrooms across the state. Now, we've sent multiple requests to Governor DeSantis's office for an interview. We did not receive a single response, but Governor DeSantis was on Fox News on Sunday, a stop on the media tour for his new book, which is called The Courage to Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival.

Now, conservatism once disdained big government and promoted local control. So Ron DeSantis was asked on Fox if he's defying those conservative values by using the ample power of state government to change local school districts.

DeSANTIS: Our K-12 schools are public institutions that are funded by our taxpayers. And so that line of thinking is saying, even though they're public institutions, the people that are elected to direct those institutions have no right to get involved. If the left is pursuing the agenda. So basically, we can win every election and we still lose on all these different things. That is totally untenable. So these are public institutions, and they have to reflect the mission that the state of Florida has in our case, not just K-12, but also higher education.

CHAKRABARTI: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Fox News on Sunday. Well, Jeff Solochek joins us now. He's an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and he has covered Florida schools for more than 20 years. Jeff, welcome to On Point.

JEFF SOLOCHEK: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for inviting me on.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, can you give me a sense about how deeply involved Florida governors have historically been in education? Because it's a major area of spending in every state. And so governors have been involved. So is what Ron DeSantis is doing or his level of interest in education out of line with Florida history?

SOLOCHEK: We had Jeb Bush, not that many governors ago, and we used to think of him as being the education governor. And he was very involved in drawing up plans for things like accountability through school, grading, through third grade, retention of students who couldn't pass the state test and things like that. He always was considered to be education first, but very much of a policy wonk. And so we're used to having an education-oriented governor and government.

We've always seen legislative session through legislative session. One of the final issues that holds up everything from finishing up usually is related to education. But now with Governor DeSantis, what we're seeing is a very different, more micromanaging type approach to what's going on. He's trying to get involved in who should be elected to school boards, what should be taught in classrooms and all sorts of other things like that, which we have not seen at this level.

I spoke to a board member from one of our counties just yesterday, and she's been on the board for 22 years and she said this level of a governor's involvement and the legislative micromanaging of what goes on in local school districts is unprecedented to her.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So it's more than just sort of setting a vision through policy. You use the word micromanaging several times there. So let's talk about some of the bills that have passed and how you see that micromanaging, working, for example, the parents' Rights in Education bill, because this issue of parent choice and parent rights seems to be, you know, flowing through a lot of what Governor DeSantis has been saying. So what does the law purport to do and how do you see that playing out in schools?

SOLOCHEK: Well, we had the first round of the parental rights law, which happened before what happened with the gender identity and sexual orientation part, which happened later on. And what that did basically was it said parents have the right to direct their children's education along with their health care and a whole bunch of other things, and that the government shouldn't be in their way. And so we saw then, especially during the pandemic, parents starting to really exercise those rights in ways that they never had done really before.

People trusted their school districts to educate their kids. Then when everybody went online, what they saw was something different than what maybe they had expected. And we had divisions happening at that point. Parents coming out to school board meetings like really never anything I had seen before, except for when maybe their favorite teacher was about to be fired or something like that. And they were arguing about these major issues. And when one fell by the wayside, masks, for instance, stopped being an issue.

They turned their attention to what are you teaching in the history classroom? And now we're talking about what books are in the schools. And my kids can have access to those books. And there are two distinct sides, and parents are really taking positions. Maybe there's more than two sides, but it seems really it's, I don't co-parent with you. You don't co-parent with me. And I don't want you making decisions for my kids. And then there are others who say we should decide for everyone because the things are just not right for schools.

CHAKRABARTI: And how much support is there for this concept of parents' rights or parents' choice? Because I read that the polling from Florida Atlantic University from a couple of years ago about masking. And at that time, you know, about half of a little more than half of Florida Floridians said, yeah, we think parents should be able to choose whether or not kids get their kids get masked at school. So how much does that support then translate to these other issues under the umbrella of parents' rights?

SOLOCHEK: It really comes down to, in a lot of ways what you think the rights are and which parents have those rights. Because what you have is one group of people and they're saying we've been ignored for so long by our schools and we want things done. The governor is saying it, too. We want these conservative principles. We win the elections. But they didn't win necessarily the school board elections. They won at the governor's level or at the state government level.

And they want to exercise those rights. You have another group of parents who are saying, we believe in parent rights, too. We believe that we have the right to let our children choose the books in the library. We believe our children should be able to not be confronted by kids not wearing a mask because we want our kids to be safe. So the issue is not really so much parental rights, but what does parental rights mean?

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CHAKRABARTI: Today we're exploring what Governor Ron DeSantis actual impact has been on K-through-12 education in the state of Florida, particularly I mean, specifically in schools and classrooms in Florida. We heard from a lot of listeners about this issue from across the country. And one of them is Monk Terry, who called us from Miami in Florida. And here's what he said about what his governor has done so far.

MONK TERRY: Ron DeSantis is using his Florida Republican legislature to upend K-12 education and in college, for that matter, is pushing to continue privatizing education through charter schools and vouchers, substituting supposedly woke liberal ideologues with conservative evangelical family values and hiring political hacks to run education boards in institutions to ensure that his agenda is met.

CHAKRABARTI: So we're going to talk about Governor DeSantis appointees to various education boards in the state a bit later. But as I mentioned earlier, people across the country wonder what Ron DeSantis's national ambitions might be. And so therefore, we did hear from people in other parts of the United States. All the way over in Seattle, Washington, Terry Matthews left us this voicemail message. She applauds Governor DeSantis's fight against, say, some parts of the advanced placement curriculum. And Terry says DeSantis is doing a good job involving parents in kid's education.

TERRY MATTHEWS: I think DeSantis has a great plan. He wants to bring good education back then. Remember, the bad governments love bad education because then those voters vote without any depth of thought. Now you have to put that in perspective. So we need a good education to keep our republic strong.

CHAKRABARTI: Listener Terry Matthews from Seattle, Washington. Well, Kurt Browning is a long time Florida public servant and a Republican. He served as Florida's secretary of state from 2007 to 2012.

KURT BROWNING: I've never let my decision making be based on whether I was a Democrat or a Republican. I just haven't. ... When I was an election official, we had to maintain a party registration, but I never had a public opinion about anything.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in 2012, Browning left the secretary of State's office and became superintendent of the Pasco County schools, a west-central central Florida district with more than 80,000 students. And this is Browning's last year as superintendent in Pasco County. He is not seeking reelection. So we sat down with him and he told us about what's changed on the ground in Pasco County schools since Governor DeSantis took office.

BROWNING: When I became superintendent in 2012, the education law book was about an inch thick. Today, it's almost two inches thick, and one size does not fit all. There's a bill out there now, not a bill, but a law, the Parents Bill of Rights. It now requires parental consent on so many things. We're required by law to do health screenings before the Parents Bill of Rights. Every kid got screened. And we're not talking thing invasive. We're talking about vision.

We're talk about hearing, we're told, scoliosis. Now, you can't even touch a kid unless the parent says, yes, I want vision hearing screen, but no scoliosis. I want scoliosis, but no vision and hearing. I want vision, but no hearing and no scoliosis. It's made the jobs of school based folks, particular school nurses. I'm married to a school nurse. Full disclosure. And I hear about it all the time. I hear about it all the time. There's a bill now, a law now that says that we've got to post all the titles out there that are in our public and our school libraries. Parents have got to consent whether or not their kids have access to those materials. We've had 99.5% of our parents say, yes, they have access those materials.

So it wasn't as dire as I thought it was before we got into this thing. But yet, I think the bigger picture for me was, is that there was this us versus them. And we were perceived to be the enemy. We were teaching things that that we shouldn't be teaching. And that's not true. You know, we've been accused of indoctrinating kids. If we were so good in indoctrination, why would we not indoctrinate kids to read and write? Why would you not indoctrinate kids to do math? Algebra one? Why would we not indoctrinate kids to do social studies? Come on.

The Woke Act, and how that's impacting what we're doing at local districts. Whether it's real or perceived, you know, perception is reality. And when that happens, then school districts are in a position where they have to respond to that. There's actually one law was passed that says when it was talked about the race issue is that the way that we would teach certain subjects that you can't make people feel guilty or anxious. Well, that's what history does to us, as I believe that's what history should do to us. Whether it's African American history, whether it's the Holocaust. But now teachers are sitting there kind of like, can I say that? Can I not say that?

Can we have robust conversations? I've told my teachers, I've told my principals, stay within the standards, stay within the district, approve resources, and we will support you. I find a lot of my time now encouraging teachers, encouraging administrators, school-based administrators, walking through schools, talking to teachers.

Everything's going to be okay. Everybody has ideas on how they want to make things better. And we've sat down with our local legislative delegation. We've shared with them. They've actually called us and said, Hey, can you come talk to us about X, Y, Z? Whatever it is. We'll go in and talk about the bathroom use issues with LGBT. We'll go and talk to them about academics.

But then it's almost like the Beltway in Washington is like winning its side Capitol circle when they get inside the Beltway. It's all about how they need to be voting and what they need to be supporting. And it's very frustrating. It really is. We want legislators to walk through our schools. I know a couple of years back, we invited our legislators to schedule time, meet with us. Let's walk through classrooms, let you see firsthand. Nobody. Nobody.

I think this governor has taken on issues like masks. He's taken on issues like vaccinations. He's taken on issues like the LGBT community. They may not be education issues per se, but they certainly impact education as a whole. Just get on social media and all you have to do on social media is say, did you know that they're teaching X?

And next thing you know, it's all out there. It's all over the Internet. And I will tell you, we've almost got to the point where we can't fight every fight. We've got to pick our fights. But... I can't put up with the incivility. I cannot. I can't. And I'm a strong guy. I am. I mean, I'm a self-admitted strong guy. But we sit on board meetings now, school board meetings every other Tuesday. And there are people that will continue to come and just beat us up about things that have nothing to do with education.

People standing up at that podium lying about things that we did or didn't do. I just, I can't put up with it anymore. And that's how bad it's gotten. And that's just not in Pasco. That's across the state. And that's the part that breaks my heart, is that I love this work, but just for my own mental well-being, I can't keep doing this.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County School District and also the former Republican secretary of state of Florida. Jeff Solochek is with us. He's the longtime education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. And Jeff, I'm very endlessly interested in trying to get a handle on what's happening literally in the level of the classroom in Florida. So you heard Superintendent Browning there say he's got teachers and administrators coming to him with all sorts of questions about like, can they do X? Can they do Y?

And a lot of his time is being spent sort of supporting morale. Have you heard that from other educators in other districts?

SOLOCHEK: Well, I've heard it in Pasco County, where I spend a lot of my time. I've probably been to 90% of those Pasco County School board meetings that he spoke of. And have heard those kinds of attacks and those kinds of questions happening on a fairly regular basis. So, yeah, I went to the Teacher of the year in Pasco County not very long ago, and we were talking about some of these very issues where she tries very hard to make sure that kids don't know what she thinks, and the kids appreciate her and she teaches government.

And so they have to do things like talk about civics and all the things that the governor has prioritized and whether she's a very staunch liberal or very staunch conservative doesn't matter to her when she's talking to her kids. But she is concerned about what she can say and what she should say. I also went to a another school in Pasco County where it was the beginning of the year, and they were all looking at during a teacher training, what is this woke law? What are these rules about classroom libraries and so forth. And they needed a principal and assistant principal to stand there and basically say, do what you've been doing. We're not doing anything wrong.

We'll support you, we're there for you. And if you do get a challenge, don't just cave into these parents who bring the challenge, go through the process, bring us, get us involved. We're there for you. But it's hard for them because they're nervous. They asked a lot of questions.

CHAKRABARTI: About that Stop Woke Act, as it's known. How specific is it in terms of providing actionable guidelines for administrators and teachers about what they can and or how they can and can't teach American history? Because I imagine that part of the problem here is that every district may interpret the same law in different ways.

SOLOCHEK: We're seeing that on a variety of these laws that are being implemented. We hear the word vague quite often, and it's regarding this bill and others. And so, for instance, when they say things like err on the side of caution or don't make your kids feel discomfort, and what might make one person feel discomfort might not make another person feel discomfort. And so teachers are then looking at it and saying, you can't talk about these things.

You can't teach this project or that book, or we don't want social emotional learning, something that we used to support. Now we don't want it anymore because somehow, it's become bad. And so they're sort of like ... got this paralysis of what can I do and what can't I do? And so they're waiting for guidelines to come from the state. And sometimes the guidelines are just as vague or not clear enough so that they can say, like, I see, do this, do this, do this.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jeff, I want to play some voices here from Florida. This is Katherine Martinez from Palm Beach County, and she's taught in Florida public schools since 1997. And she told us that she believes Governor Desantis's changes in education are just the latest in decades long Republican efforts as she sees them to weaken public schools.

MARTINEZ: I'm extremely concerned because our governor is grandstanding and using Florida as a partner to launch himself into a national platform. He has designs on the presidency, and I shudder to think what would happen if he ever reaches that role.

CHAKRABARTI: And Katherine also told us that she is concerned about what's being said about educators.

MARTINEZ: We in the public schools are working our hardest to guide and develop the next generation. When I hear right wing media saying that public school teachers are grooming children to become to follow alternative lifestyles like to become gay or lesbian, it just horrifies me. And I even hear my husband, who is Latino and loves to listen to far-right programs coming up with this false narrative. And I have to correct him all the time.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Katherine Martinez, a teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida. Now, Jeff, another issue that Governor DeSantis has been very vocal on, and it's a recent one was about the introduction of AP African American history as a potential course offering in Florida. Can you tell us a little bit more about what happened and sort of where that issue stands right now in the state?

SOLOCHEK: I'm not sure exactly where the whole thing developed, but as the course started to grow and they were developing their pilot, there was obviously going to be an interest in Florida. Florida is huge into AP and College Board materials. They spend millions of dollars on it allowing students to take the test for free. And so they clearly knew that they were going to have some sort of influence.

The course as the governor and his administration looked at it, appeared to be one that didn't jibe with their whole idea of this whole issue that we were talking about. Do we feel discomfort? Does it indoctrinate or create an ideology from the left wing? And so they said they don't want to have the course taught in Florida without changes. After the framework came out, right in time for African American History Month, we saw that there were some changes made, and the governor said, basically thank you for making them and made it sound as if the College Board had acceded to his demands.

And the College Board fought back furiously. They accused him of political grandstanding on behalf of their course and they tried to save face. It's been a fight ever since, and we've since now been talking about, Florida still hasn't accepted this course. And they've talked about whether we need to go look past College Board to other forms of testing, other forms of courses that are more in line with the new way of Florida thinking.

CHAKRABARTI: And there was a moment even where I caught one story that said Governor DeSantis had even thought about threatening to cancel all AP courses from Florida schools. Did I just read that correctly or not?

SOLOCHEK: He didn't say it exactly that way, but he talked about going past AP, looking for other vendors, looking for other courses, and he spoke about International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge program, dual enrollment with community college courses. When that story came out, there was like a huge wave of anger from parents and students who rely on these College Board courses, the AP courses, in order to get advanced curriculum to qualify for credits for their universities.

It's a way to get into schools outside of just, you know, their neighborhood university, if there is such a thing. Around here we have the University of South Florida, they're around here, and people will have other aspirations. They're always told do college work. Do Advanced Placement. So yeah. He started to back down from that now because clearly it was not a winner.

CHAKRABARTI: We got some calls from people across the country who actually are supportive or know of support for Governor DeSantis's policies. For example, on vaccination requirements for schools. Because here's Nancy, who called us from California, and she says she knows several families with young children who have moved from California to Florida recently.

NANCY: The reason that they are doing that is because of these strict inoculation laws that are now here in California. And they would not be moving out of state to Florida if they had choices on whether or not to do that.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Jeff, I think one thing I've been struggling with and really trying to understand granularly what's happening in Florida is that it's quite easy for us to say, let us know what you think. And people who are upset will call. Right? I mean, it's true of any issue. But I have to say we put a lot of effort into trying to get educators who are working in Florida right now who are either supportive of Governor DeSantis's changes or do not feel that what's happening and tell us that has he has actually had any impact on their ability to run the classrooms the way they want.

And you know we spoke with them extensively on background. But when push came to shove, none of these educators wanted to come on the air with us because they were concerned about the, you know, the potential social blowback that they would receive if they came on the radio and talked about their support for Governor DeSantis. I mean, how does that strike you?

SOLOCHEK: Well, just welcome to my world. And it's not just teachers, not just teachers who support Ron DeSantis. It's teachers who don't support Ron DeSantis, too. So many of them are afraid to say anything for fear of alienating someone or losing their job. Most teachers don't have continuing contracts anymore because we did away with those in 2011. So only the most veteran teachers who are probably talking to us ... because they have the least to lose. But yeah, it's just par for the course these days. The teachers, they don't want to go and stick their necks out too much.

CHAKRABARTI: Did you have similar trouble in years or decades past getting educators to speak with you on the record?

SOLOCHEK: It was never this hard, but it was always somewhat hard. I mean, people who are afraid that, you know, if they say something, that they're going to lose their job, they don't want to lose their job. But it's funny that this year or maybe it was a couple of years ago, now I'm having I'm losing track of time with all this stuff going on. But we had one teacher who was willing to stand up. He was accused by a parent of using woke indoctrination in teaching. I can't even remember what the subject was ... history. And he stood up and he spoke out and he fought for his job publicly. We did a big story on him and suddenly he was being quoted all over the country like he was the only teacher whoever did this and was willing to talk.

CHAKRABARTI: And so therefore what?

SOLOCHEK: So therefore he became the sole voice because there are so many teachers who maybe feel the same way he does, but aren't willing to stand up and say it. He still comes to school board meetings and says, We do not indoctrinate. Come to my class, I'll show you.

CHAKRABARTI: So speaking of this thread of the fear of indoctrination that seems to be driving a lot of what Governor DeSantis is doing, we have to talk about something you mentioned a little earlier, and that's about books in libraries, in classrooms, school libraries and classrooms, because videos started popping up in, what, January, late January of empty bookshelves, specifically in Duval and Manatee County schools. Jeff, first of all, what prompted those two counties to even pull the books from their shelves or cover them completely in classrooms, in libraries?

SOLOCHEK: The legislature passed a law, and it included a portion that said that all schoolbooks need to be reviewed and placed on a list for public consumption. And they need to be considered in terms of whether they're appropriate for schools. Now, that seemed on its face to be pretty innocuous, but it was different because this time they were saying that media specialists had to do it. They had to be trained in a certain way by the state. The training module hadn't even come out and people were starting to make complaints about this and that. Because on top of it were all these other laws. What can we talk about? What can we teach about?

And things started to all combine into one big concern that if I have the wrong books on my shelves and they haven't been properly vetted, then maybe somebody will be able to sue me. Because there was also talk about providing certain materials to children is a class three felony. And so therefore, some school districts used that language that the state has been using air on the side of caution and they took the books away.

I want to point out others did not. And this wasn't necessarily the governor's proposal, although he claims responsibility for a lot of them, or he then wants to say how much he likes them. Some of these things come from the lawmakers, too, and they are working in concert quite frequently. But there are many ways of interpreting this law, and not every district has done it that way. But some have.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, So we'll keep that in mind because it's important about how laws and policies are being executed in different ways in different districts. That's a really important point, Jeff. But, you know, Governor DeSantis was asked about those books that had been pulled from shelves by another local reporter just last month.

DeSANTIS: What they're trying to do is they're trying to act like somehow, you know, we don't want books that are in some of the narratives that you hear. You hear people talk about felony charges. Understand, nothing that we've done since I've been governor has done anything. Now there is a longstanding Florida law that prohibits an adult from giving a school child pornography. But don't we think that that's inappropriate to do?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Brian Covey is one of the people who posted videos on Twitter showing those empty bookshelves. Now, he began substitute teaching in 2022 and was a permanent substitute math teacher until just last month when he was fired for posting those videos. Brian Covey is also a parent to two elementary school aged kids in Duval County.

COVEY: The way I found out that the books were 100% removed from Duval County was I went and picked up my kids for a 5 p.m. event in the school where they had a book fair going on in the library. They had food trucks. This is during a state sponsored literacy week.

So when I went to pick up my kids, my daughter said, Did you hear what happened at school today? And I said, No, what happened? He said, They took away all the books. And it kind of hit me because it was out of the blue and I didn't really know how to respond to that. What do you mean? All the books? And my son went on to explain that they took away all the books, including the books that students were currently reading. This includes the Sunshine State Books, which is a state sponsored program where at my son's school, if they read so much, they get an ice cream party at the end of the year.

When we went to the classrooms, I noticed that the classroom bookshelves had construction paper. Kind of like if you were trying to keep paint off the table. It was taped over all of the books in the classroom. And for me, it was just kind of a signaling that just seemed so out of this world and didn't seem like it was a reality. I couldn't explain to my kids.

So that night I got into the social media void and I tweeted out, They removed every single book from my children's classroom. I read about the consequences of this when I was in school. So I was talking to a colleague as I was checking in for school that morning, and she said, You should see what we did to the media center upstairs. I saw the empty bookshelves. I took that 17 second video and I put a visualization to what was happening in the schools, and I had no reception at the school, I was working.

So I came back to my phone with like 500,000 or a million views and it had become a topic of conversation. And I talked to the teachers that I knew. They said that they were basically just having to grin and bear it and trying to keep it normalcy for their students and that they were crying and supporting each other after hours, just trying to understand how we've gotten to a point where education is removing books from the classroom. When they implemented it, the district only had 52 media specialists to review 1.6 million titles.

So this is a Herculean task for them to do for an unfunded project, and they were tracking it in Excel. So the first 7,000 books had to be done through a review process. That meant reading the book, filling out a questionnaire, finding two reviews online, and then submitting it through the Excel spreadsheet. On Valentine's Day, Governor DeSantis was asked about my viral video, and he decided to call it a false narrative.

I walked across the hall and shot the same video of the bookshelves, and at the end of those empty bookshelves were now the books that were available to check out in the library. And it was very sparse. And this was three weeks after they had removed 100% of the books. The next day, the school board actually came out and said that they had an approved book list of 7,000 books, which means that 99.5% of books three weeks after 100% removal were still inaccessible to students across the district. This is a law that was written vague on purpose. And the implementation, I would not wish to be a blueprint on any student or parents. It just blows my mind that politics has gotten so cruel to where my kids' education is even off the table.

CHAKRABARTI: Brian Covey, now a former substitute teacher in Duval County, Florida. Jeff, this wouldn't be the first time when a state passed a law or created a new education regulation that then the districts felt was unsupported and unfunded. But how much of that is a recurring theme in the changes that Governor DeSantis has brought to Florida? It seems like we're hearing a lot about chaotic implementation.

SOLOCHEK: Yes, there we're hearing that a lot from the teachers and the teachers' unions. There are, of course, parents who think that what he's doing is great, as you've quoted some of them and we've heard around here, too. But from the teachers' perspectives, it's just become very difficult to manage their classrooms. A lot of the teachers, I don't want to say all of them. And the schools are trying to figure out.

I'm covering right now a whole discussion over the question of whether they should have removed one book from one class, which turned into removing the book from all the high schools in the entire district. And whether the district followed its own procedures or whether the state's new rules, which were kind of confusing, trumped those rules and the district's policies. And it's just creating chaos for a lot of people and maybe people like that. But it doesn't seem like a great way to do business.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to take a quick step back here, Jeff, because as you well know, I don't think there has been a single moment in American history where education hasn't been political in this country, if I'm perfectly honest. And yet, you know, depending on your point of view, for example, there's a school not too far from where I am in Massachusetts, where, for example, a teacher told their students that they would be graded down if they misgendered or used improper pronouns for someone.

Now, that wasn't a law that was handed down from the state of Massachusetts. That was just something that happened in the culture of that school. So I wonder, though, what would you say is the difference between things like that that we also know are happening in schools versus what's been going on in Florida under Governor Desantis's leadership?

If I'm understanding what you're saying correctly, it sounds like Governor DeSantis was trying to get some sort of control over that kind of an example. Teachers who are talking off script trying to require certain things on students that maybe he thinks shouldn't be required of students. He keeps talking a lot about wanting to teach the facts, stick to the basics, not try and tell people what to think, but teach people how to think. And that seems like a really great goal. And a lot of people like that.

The implementation, the way people are seeing it, some think it's awesome the way that say they're doing down at this new college, which we haven't talked about much. It's higher ed, but they brought in a whole new board of trustees who are promoting a whole new way of thinking about that school. It's been a liberal arts school. They want to turn it into a conservative think tank, but there are a lot of other people are saying, you know, don't just replace one ideology with another. If you really want us to think, let us think.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, well, we want to do a future show on higher ed in Florida, too, for sure.

SOLOCHEK: There's plenty to say.

CHAKRABARTI: Jeff, how many times have you had a chance to interview Governor DeSantis?

SOLOCHEK: Does that count press conferences where you toss out a question?

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, actually, no, because I would hope that an education reporter would be able to get a one-on-one interview with a governor who's put so much effort into state education.

SOLOCHEK: No, that would be zero. I've talked to his education commissioners. I've spoken to his press people. But the governor and I, our conversations have been limited to press conferences.

CHAKRABARTI: So he's never given you a one on one?

SOLOCHEK: No. I don't know that he's ever given anybody at our paper a one on one. I couldn't say, I couldn't swear to that. But I talk to our politics reporters frequently, and I don't recall them ever saying that. They just sat down and chatted with him.

CHAKRABARTI: And how does that differ from, say, Governor Bush?

SOLOCHEK: You used to not be able to stop Governor Bush from talking. You would walk with him to the car and his aides would have to push you away because he needed to get to his next place.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And the reason why I asked that then is, you know, looming over all of this for listeners outside of Florida is, you know, given that it seems that Governor DeSantis has national ambitions, how much should be we be reading what's happening in Florida as the governor's using his state as a test case for what he might be able to advance nationally?

SOLOCHEK: That's speculation. ... I don't know. I mean, I don't know what his ambitions are, although we all think we know. It seems like it would be a good test case, doesn't it, if you have a governor who's actually being in an executive and he has the opportunity to do things and show you how he would be as an executive.

Related Reading

Tampa Bay Times: "DeSantis calls for ‘open market’ to compete with Advanced Placement" — "Gov. Ron DeSantis toned down his criticism of the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses during a news conference Monday in Orlando."

This program aired on March 6, 2023.

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