Where We Stand: Who Has Freedom, and Who Doesn’t, in Ron DeSantis’s Florida?

Weingarten speaks at a press conference in Broward County, FL.

Attacks on personal and educational freedoms are increasing throughout the country, with Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis leading the way. DeSantis talks about freedom, but in practice, he is repressive. It’s freedom for those who agree with him—not for the vulnerable trans kid, the educator teaching honest history, or the business leader creating a welcoming space for all. DeSantis is:

  • Passing hostile legislative measures against Disney because the company criticized DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
  • Assaulting educators’ freedom of association by denying their right to have union dues deducted from their paychecks, while preserving that right for unions that endorsed him.
  • Preventing schools from teaching honest history and creating safe and welcoming spaces for gay and trans students.
  • Waging an extremist takeover of state higher education, including banning diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in state colleges.
  • Criminalizing educators for maintaining well-rounded classroom libraries and fueling book bans. One school board banned And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about penguins; another removed “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman’s poem for President Biden’s inauguration.

This is dangerous for democracy. Your freedom of speech and association, your freedom to be who you are and to love who you love—these shouldn’t be at risk because of a governor’s vindictiveness.

Who is free in Florida? The National Rifle Association is doing well: in April, Florida passed a law allowing concealed carry without a permit. The anti-choice lobby is celebrating: in April, DeSantis signed a bill banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy—before many people know they’re pregnant. Corporations and billionaires DeSantis likes, like insurance and real estate companies, are thriving. Homeowners’ insurance will increase 40 percent on average in Florida this year, while DeSantis handed the industry a $2 billion bailout and a bill making it harder for homeowners to sue insurance companies for failing to pay legitimate claims. And Floridians face an affordable housing crisis. The governor’s misnamed affordable housing bill prohibits local governments from adopting rent control and undoes a 2019 reform allowing expedited approvals for affordable housing on residential land.

Florida is 47th in the country for healthcare affordability and access—and 45th in public education funding. DeSantis’s policies continue to cost Florida significant business investment and tourism dollars: Disney is jettisoning plans to build a nearly $1 billion corporate campus and the NAACP issued a travel warning against Florida.

Why does DeSantis’s message resonate for some people in Florida and beyond?

DeSantis is preying on people’s fears about the future and pandemic-driven uncertainty. Despite many promising signs in the economy—with the Biden administration having created more than 12 million jobs, including more than 800,000 in manufacturing, and unemployment at a 54-year low—a March 2023 CNN poll reported that 7 in 10 people believe our economy is in poor shape. Families feeling uncertain as we emerge from a pandemic is understandable—but it’s unconscionable that leaders are capitalizing on it. Former President Trump even called on Republicans to default on the federal debt, a reckless and wildly irresponsible stance that would result in millions of jobs lost.

While DeSantis is tapping into that fear to stoke division, we are fighting back. Unions are bringing people together to fight for higher wages, greater opportunities, and a better life for all—and for democratic freedoms for all. And you—union activists and educators in public schools and colleges—are crucial in this fight. As you stand up for the right to read and learn, you are standing up for democracy. (For more on how we’re fighting back, see my article on defending public schools.)

Sixty-nine years ago, the AFT filed an amicus brief in the US Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education—the only union and education organization to do so. While we have yet to achieve the equality Brown promised, our progress is imperiled by extremist leaders like DeSantis who are working to reverse civil rights advances, attack our freedoms, and use public schools for their political and ideological goals.

We can’t let the extremists win. It is our job as teachers and labor unionists to resist the demagogues and dividers and to assert that a great nation chooses democracy, equality, opportunity—and freedom—for all.

[Photo: AFT]

American Educator, Summer 2023