Public education has been taken hostage in Florida. And the state legislature and governor’s feverish campaign to strictly limit what facts and information can be accessed in public learning institutions is the driving force behind this egregious incursion.
The impact of this campaign, put into motion through a series of targeted and often discriminatory laws, is already being felt. The Florida Department of Education’s recent rejection of a pilot Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course lays bare the jarring nature of these implications. But the tentacles of the push for censorship, the war on truth, and the erasure of historically marginalized voices and stories in Florida extend far beyond a single high school course. Students at all levels of their educational careers, and the state as a whole, will endure far-reaching impacts from these laws for many years to come.
Three chilling anti-education laws are working in concert to undermine the quality of education in Florida’s public schools. The first is HB 7, a measure derisively branded as the “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act, which restricts discussion around certain topics related to race and gender in Florida public schools. The restrictions imposed by Stop W.O.K.E. were reportedly what resulted in the barring of the AP African American Studies pilot course from Florida high schools. Notably, the Legal Defense Fund and co-counsel Ballard Spahr, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Florida, won a preliminary injunction to stop HB 7 from being enforced in public universities and colleges while litigation over its constitutionality continues. But this injunction does not stop the state from mandating the restriction of topics related to race and gender at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels in the meantime.
Meanwhile, there is also HB 1557, widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans lessons and instructional materials related to gender identity and sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade. And, finally, there’s HB 1467, a law that has recently led to the removal of classroom books in public school districts in Florida due to its requirement that reading materials undergo a sustained review and preapproval process before students use them.
“The thing with those three [laws], is that they are all interconnected,” says Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association, in a recent interview with LDF. “Also, all three were very, very vague in how they were worded, and I personally believe that’s intentional for them to be vague. Because it’s opened the door to create some chaos and confusion and distrust in our schools.”
Chaos, confusion, and distrust are indeed roiling through public schools. Teachers, librarians, and other school officials have indicated they are deeply fearful of the felony charges that could come if they are found in violation of HB 1467. Amid this fear and uncertainty, some districts have advised them to remove or cover all their classroom books.
Furthermore, though HB 1467 is ostensibly about requiring that all school library books be free of pornography and appropriate for the grade level and age group for which the materials are made available, the additional restrictions of HB 7 and HB 1557 are resulting in sweeping book bans, according to Spar. He tells LDF that the laws’ regulation of conversations about race and gender identity are being cited as rationales to prohibit books that even just feature protagonists of color, immigrants, or LGBTQ+ characters.
The immediate fallout from targeting books and diversity is that children attending public school in Florida now face barriers to accessing what every child deserves: to read freely and embrace the creative power of stories, especially ones in which they can see themselves and their families represented. It is therefore unsurprising, and deeply upsetting, that some teachers have shared stories of students crying at school when they find out they can no longer read or borrow a favorite book at school.
Stephana Ferrell co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project and a parent of two biracial children, tells LDF that the erasure of diverse literature is worrying on several fronts. “District leadership is essentially telling our students that the stories they connect with aren’t acceptable, lack value, and that they too can be judged by life’s excerpts,” she emphasizes. “If the emotional toll wasn’t enough, the educational impact of removing stories that Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ+ students connect with will make it harder for these students to spark a love of reading.”
Spar takes a similar view. “In all these cases, when kids see books that talk about them, that talk about their history, that talk about their struggle, that talk about their life being pulled out of the library, it has a psychological impact on those students. That there’s something wrong with them or that they shouldn’t be who they are,” he says. “In the end, it also takes away their ability to connect to their learning. Which any good educator knows, if kids can’t connect to their learning, they’re not really learning.”
Even more disturbingly, according to Spar and several news reports, some of the people pushing for books to be banned from schools – sometimes by claiming that they are advocating for parents’ rights – do not even have children attending public schools.
Meanwhile, public school staff are bristling and buckling under these dystopian working conditions — which is especially troubling considering Florida can’t afford to lose any more of these essential workers. At the start of 2023, Florida’s public schools were already suffering from an acute teacher shortage crisis, with over 5,000 open vacancies in the state. This means that more than 100,000 students are currently going to school without a full-time teacher. And, according to Spar, more educators are planning to leave due to the current educational environment.
“It’s driven mostly by this idea [that], ‘I am not respected as a professional. I can’t do the job I’m supposed to do, and I’m tired of being made the villain. And I can’t stand by and watch kids suffer because of politicians,” he shares.
In Florida’s public universities, the situation is similar. And, according to a Pew Research Center Article referencing National Center for Education Statistics findings, professors are far more likely to be white than their students, reflecting a substantial racial and ethnic imbalance between faculty and increasingly diverse student bodies. This already concerning state of affairs is becoming even more dire due to the war on truth and on high-level race scholarship, in particular.
A survey of faculty of color conducted by LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute (TMI) in November 2022 revealed concerns that the state is now experiencing a Black academic “brain drain” in the aftermath of Stop W.O.K.E.’s passage. As Dr. Kesha Moore, TMI’s Manager of Research, tells LDF, the group indicated that some faculty are choosing to retire early and to no longer offer classes around race-specific topics. And there are few experts willing to fill this emerging gap.
“For people who are race scholars, it is very difficult to recruit them to come to Florida. It’s very difficult to get them to even come for guest lectures and teaching. Because people don’t want to be in places where they’ll be demonized and the value of their work will be criticized,” says Moore. “That means that Florida students won’t get access to high quality scholarship from across the country. It also means that graduate students and early professors are leaving because they don’t want to be in these settings where their scholarship isn’t respected and encouraged.”
Professors in the focus group reported that they and their peers are engaging in self-censorship, removing certain books from their syllabi, and not teaching some topics that they normally would cover in class — echoing similar reports from a ProPublica investigation that examined how faculty have responded to the restrictions imposed by HB 7. One focus group participant said that a former doctoral student of theirs was even singled out on a conservative website because of the themes on their syllabus, with one comment on the website saying that the content of his class warranted a “lynching.”
Faculty of color are understandably terrified. Per the focus group, in this hostile working and learning environment, those who remain in the lecture halls of Florida’s public universities and colleges are now trying to avoid teaching race — especially Black faculty, who are more likely to teach courses on race studies, critical race theory (CRT), ethnic studies, and others that involve the viewpoints HB 7 is designed to suppress. “They talked about feeling less safe in the classroom and that students could be audio taping them and using it in a distorted way to create a ruckus and cause them to lose their jobs,” Moore notes.
Unfortunately, this fear is not unfounded — and is already coming to fruition in other states. In Virginia, for example, anti-CRT mania fueled an executive order from the state’s governor banning the academic legal theory from being taught in K-12 schools (even though CRT is not even taught in elementary and high schools, per the American Federation of Teachers). That measure was followed by a state government-run tip line that encourages students to report educators who teach “divisive practices.”
This breakdown of trust between teachers and students spells deep trouble at all educational levels, according to Moore. “As someone who taught at the college level for 16 years, I would always start out every class at the beginning of the semester by saying, ‘teaching and learning is a relationship.’ And, like any other social relationship, the quality of what happens is shaped by the quality of that relationship. So, it was very disturbing to hear about the erosion of trust, because that has implications for what can be learned on both sides.”
The long-term impact is that there will be an invisible but devastating “Educational Mason-Dixon Line,” as one focus group respondent coined it. This divide will come from the chilling atmosphere of fear and brain drain that is already emerging amid the war on truth — especially the truth about institutional racism in Florida itself and in the South more broadly.
“Florida is losing its ability to reflect on itself and learn about its own kind of current practices and [their] implications,” Moore echoes. “We won’t know how race and racism operates in Florida in this current context because there aren’t going to be scholars to write about it. It creates this disparity that all of the scholars of race and racism are really going to be outside of the South.”
Texas and Florida topped PEN America’s list of states with the most banned books in the 2021-2022 academic year, and all but one of the states that passed educational gag orders in 2022 are located in the South. There’s a concerning geographical demarcation line emerging around the free exchange of knowledge in the United States — a notion deeply disturbing in itself, and even more so amid the context that the majority of Black people in the United States (56%) live in the South.
College students like Johana Dauphin, a senior at a Florida university and a plaintiff in LDF’s current litigation against Stop W.O.K.E., are keenly concerned about the implications for young adults like herself, as well as for her peers of all backgrounds, who will have to go on to live, work, and help shape our multi-racial, multi-ethnic country.
“Some people come from homogenous communities and, when they come to college, it’s the first time that they’re around people of color. It’s the first time they’re around people of different religions. It’s the first time they’re around people of different gender identities,” she tells LDF. “And if they’re not put in a position where they’re required to take one or two diversity classes, they’re going to leave college just as ignorant as they came in. And that’s really scary to think about.”
Ferrell of Florida’s Freedom to Read Project also fears that these politically-motivated limitations on learning “will fail to prepare our students to compete on the national and global stage.” It’s a valid concern, particularly as both employers and young people are prioritizing racial diversity in the classroom and at work. And for good reason. Many research studies over the years have found that gender and ethnic diversity improves performance outcomes across a range of spaces and professions, including education, health care, and sales. Millennials and members of Gen Z — the generations that will lead the workforce over the next few decades — also consistently list diversity, equity, and inclusion as top workplace priorities.
The repercussions of the state’s dystopian suppression of diversity are clearly far too costly for Floridians.
So, what can be done to stem the ever-rising tide of consequences from Florida’s war on truth? In addition to ongoing work in the policy and legal arenas to combat anti-truth measures, it will take a combination of individual and collective action to curb this fallout.
While outraged at what she calls the dystopian, undemocratic, and un-American imposition of the government into what adult students like herself are allowed to learn and discuss in classes for which they registered and paid tuition, Dauphin said she will not be deterred from her pursuit of knowledge as she continues her studies in international affairs with a concentration in urban and regional planning.
“I can honestly say that I’m passionate enough about doing this work, that I’m going to the library and I’m going to read a book regardless.”
For others, like K-12 students and teachers, and everyday people who may not know where to start — or don’t know what they don’t know — a larger movement to protect truth, freedom, and inclusivity in education is imperative.
“You should not have to send your child to a college outside of Florida just so they can have a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the world in which we live,” Moore says, pointing out that public institutions in the state are funded with Floridians’ tax dollars. “All Florida residents have the right and responsibility to put a stop to this and to demand high quality teaching, for their students and for their state.”
The Florida faculty of color who participated in TMI’s focus group also emphasized the role of community and student mobilization in pushing back against state overreach that has left educators feeling like they are “facing Goliath alone.”
“We have to go old school, go back to the churches, go back to community centers, and kind of create spaces for us to ensure that our children and all children don’t lose this knowledge,” Moore emphasizes.
It’s important that this collective effort itself reflect America’s diversity: Everyone should stand up in defense of all our shared history as Americans, as well as to honor the value of public education. For example, one focus group respondent, who is Afro-Latino, spoke about the importance of building inter-ethnic academic support for race scholarship by engaging not only Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but also historically Latino and Hispanic-serving universities and colleges.
Spar also gives a rousing call to action: “If you’re a parent or a community member, work with your teachers and staff and administrators in your school. Let them know you have their back[s]. Because the people who are trying to ban books, who are trying to create division in the schools, I believe it’s a small group and they’re a very loud group. So, we need to all counter that. We need to speak up and say, ‘No, that’s not okay. It’s not okay for you to dictate what my kid does. It’s not okay for you to limit my kid’s options, my kid’s opportunities, my kid’s ability to see themselves in their learning.’ No one should have the authority to do that.”
The word “woke” has been a signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage since the 1920s. Now, it has been co-opted and maligned. Our latest Original Content piece explores how the term “woke” has been manipulated and maligned to hold back racial justice progress.
The first installment of LDF’s original content series examines the attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’ and efforts to ban books as the latest tactics to halt racial justice.
The third installment explains why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen.
LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.
LDF is at the forefront of the fight to ensure that America lives up to the ideals of justice and equality for all. The right to free expression and the right to vote are cornerstones of our democracy. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth.
Our students deserve and need more than a white-washed, sanitized, revised version of American history. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth. Learn more about our pro-truth advocacy and litigation.