Legislative session amplifies the fight for academic freedom in Florida

Florida educators and unionists are fired up and ready to go: As the state kicked off its legislative session on March 7, they organized an all-day blitz, bombarding lawmakers with coordinated emails and phone calls to demand support for high-quality, accessible and equitable public education, from preschool through graduate school, free from censorship and government control. The action is crucial in a state where academic freedom, teacher autonomy, equity, diversity and the freedom to organize are all on the line.

Florida State House
The Florida State Capitol in Tallahasseer Credit: By DXR - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Florida is ground zero for the attack against public education, and in particular efforts to kill diversity and equity programs, eliminate courses that explore racism, and limit what and how educators, including college faculty, present content in the classroom and, by extension, what students learn. Far-right politicians, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, have already passed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which limits how educators can teach about race and gender; and the “Don’t Say Gay Act,” which prohibits classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity, silencing students who want to share about their own identities or their experiences having LGBTQIA+ parents or other family members.

All of this is working against a school staff shortage that already leaves hundreds of thousands of students without certified teachers in their classrooms, and an exodus of faculty who would rather leave the state than face censorship or worse. Now Florida lawmakers have queued up a spate of additional bills to further erode public education and gut unions, which are one of the last remaining bulwarks protecting tenure and academic freedom.

Fighting for freedom

The Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida and the AFT are fighting back. In addition to preparing testimony, holding town halls, strategizing with allies and publishing multiple op-eds, the unions held a daylong “3-7 Challenge” campaign on March 7—or 3-7. Activists made three phone calls and sent seven emails each to Florida officials, advocating for robust and inclusive public education. FEA and UFF provided the names of the officials and their contact information and cheered the efforts on social media and at a press conference.

New college students
Students protest state-mandated changes at Florida’s New College, where Gov. DeSantis is placing his political allies in leadership positions.

“When our kids have an education that they can rely on, they know how to navigate the world, they know how to think critically, how to problem solve,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten at the event. “We create nation builders: the researchers, the educators, who help do tremendous things in medicine, in climate issues, in industrial issues, in social studies, in foreign affairs.” Florida must preserve this endeavor, she said.

But DeSantis is working to break it down. Instead of focusing on issues like housing costs, property insurance, escalating costs for seniors, preserving Social Security and Medicare, said Weingarten—things Floridians care about—DeSantis “is going to pull the rug out on academic freedom.”

UFF President Andrew Gothard noted DeSantis’ political ambition as one driver behind the relentless attack. “Public education is a public good,” said Gothard, calling it crucial to the future of Florida. “We cannot sacrifice that future in the kiln of one man’s political ambition.”

DeSantis’ accusations that educators are “indoctrinating” students with far-left ideology are simply false and designed to pit parents against teachers, said FEA President Andrew Spar. “What we see happening right now is an attempt to divide, an attempt to undermine our education at all levels,” he said. Meanwhile the union is working to bring parents, teachers and students together.

An ongoing battle

Besides the so-called Stop WOKE (H.B. 7) and Don’t Say Gay (H.B. 1557/S.B. 1834) laws, DeSantis has championed legislation that would expand H.B. 1557 to censor instruction up to grade 8 (instead of grade 3) and prohibit conversations about preferred pronouns. He supports another law that allows students to record college faculty members without their knowledge and lodge complaints about course content that could threaten careers as well as funding for programs and colleges.

Florida now requires higher education administrations to report programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and any courses that examine critical race theory. Faculty members also are being muzzled: Three professors were denied the right to provide expert testimony in a Florida voting rights case; they were eventually permitted to proceed, but the case was “an egregious violation” of academic freedom, as the American Association of University Professors wrote at the time. Other threats in higher education include board and state oversight of faculty hiring and course selection.

Credit: olaser/Getty

In some K-12 classrooms, book selections have been limited to those that have been approved by a media specialist, resulting in a purge of classroom books or in some cases shrouds thrown across entire shelves. Educators are afraid to offer books and teach topics they know would engage their learners; some are abandoning programs of study, and colleges are canceling classes on gender studies and race to avoid scrutiny.

Legislators also have gone after tenure, requiring five-year performance reviews for tenured faculty. “Academic freedom ensures that politicians can’t censor the speech and research of students and faculty,” said UFF’s Gothard. “Tenure is not a permanent job for lazy professors. It is a protection for faculty of all political backgrounds from unjust political influence.”

Unions are one of the last bulwarks protecting tenure, and they are in the crosshairs as well. S.B. 256 would eliminate paycheck deductions for dues and threaten decertification if the union does not hit 60 percent membership density. “The antilabor bureaucrats want to eliminate us,” said Paul Ortiz, president of the University of Florida chapter of UFF. “We know this because they told us point blank. They want to wipe out our unions.”

“What we have here in Florida is an all-hands-on-deck red alert,” said AAUP President Irene Mulvey. “Higher education in a democracy must be organized as a public good, it must contribute to the public good. If the state is dictating what students can learn, what students are forbidden from learning … we are no longer in a democracy. This is the kind of thing we see in a totalitarian state.”

You could be next

The possibility that DeSantis will run for president of the United States is energizing the fight against suppression in Florida—because, as many have noted, this fight could be taken to a national level. “We need to get serious, Florida,” said state Rep. Yvonne Hinson, who has been in the trenches crafting legislation to counter the worst of the bills that have been proposed. “You ALL need to get serious if this guy runs for president. You better stop him here.”

“Unfortunately, what we know from past years is that these proposals will not remain in the Sunshine State,” wrote Gothard in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed. “Unlike Vegas, what happens in Florida doesn’t stay in Florida. The outlook is bleak.”

The solution, says Gothard, is to band together for the common good.

[Virginia Myers]