Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation on Friday that aims to regulate how schools and businesses address race and gender, the state’s latest effort to restrict education about those topics.
The law, which has become known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” prohibits workplace training or school instruction that teaches that individuals are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”; that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender, or national origin; or that a person “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” over actions committed in the past by members of the same race, gender, or national origin. The law says such trainings or lessons amount to discrimination.
The Republican-led legislation passed the Florida House in February by a vote of 74-41 and the Florida Senate in March by a vote of 24-15, along partisan lines.
“No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” DeSantis said in a statement on Friday. “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”
DeSantis, a Republican, proposed the legislation in December under the name Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, saying he aimed to “take on both corporate wokeness and critical race theory.”
“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” he said at the time, while calling critical race theory “state-sanctioned racism.”
Critical race theory is a graduate-level academic framework that explores how institutions perpetuate racism. School districts across the country have emphasized that it is not being taught at the K-12 level. But the topic has become a catch-all target of conservative critics, who argue that lessons or trainings addressing systemic racism will divide children and make white students uncomfortable.
Florida’s new law has been criticized by civil rights groups and free-speech advocates, who warn that it will have a chilling effect on educators.
“This dangerous law is part of a nationwide trend to whitewash history and chill free speech in classrooms and workplaces,” Amy Turkel, interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “It will infringe on teachers’ and employers’ First Amendment rights and chill their ability to use concepts like systemic racism and gender discrimination to teach about and discuss important American history.”
The law allows teachers to address “how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination” and how laws enforced racial discrimination, but also says the lessons may include “how recognition of individual freedoms overturned these unjust laws” and “may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”
The law also says officials who review instructional material may not recommend any materials that reflect “unfairly upon persons because of their race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion,” or other characteristics.
And it prohibits lessons or trainings in schools and workplaces that teach that individuals “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion,” an apparent reference to affirmative action policies, which traditionally benefit Black and Latino students or employees in an effort to offset centuries of racial discrimination. They may also not advance the idea that concepts like merit or racial colorblindness “were created by members of a particular race, color, sex, or national origin to oppress members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.”
Florida state Rep. Bryan Avila, who sponsored the bill, called out Disney, the largest private employer in the state, during debate about the legislation. He criticized the company’s diversity training, saying it would run afoul of the new law.
Some critics of the law are especially concerned that it affects both K-12 schools and public colleges and universities, where there are stronger protections for academic freedom.
“Because it prohibits the promotion of these ideas by public university faculty, it is almost certainly unconstitutional,” says Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, an organization that advocates for free expression.
He notes that some schools and colleges around the country have already canceled events related to civil rights or courses covering race, fearing backlash or sanctions if they violate new education-related laws. In January, for example, Florida’s Osceola County school district canceled a workshop for teachers about the civil rights movement “in light of the current conversations across our state and in our community about critical race theory.” The history professor who was scheduled to lead the seminar said his presentation was not about critical race theory, the Associated Press reported.
That was months before “Stop WOKE” became law. Young expects similar instances will only become more common now. “I think that this bill is going to intimidate every teacher in the state of Florida at every level,” he says.
A wave of legislation
Florida’s new law is the latest example of controversial legislation coming out of the state that takes aim at discussions of identity.
In March, the state enacted a law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, that bans public schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade and prohibits teaching about those topics “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The broadly worded law could also allow parents to sue school districts if they think their children were given inappropriate instruction that violated it.
LGBTQ rights advocates have warned that the legislation will make schools a less welcoming environment for students and could negatively affect their mental health.
Over the last year, DeSantis has also spoken repeatedly about “keeping critical race theory out of the classroom.” In March, he signed a law allowing parents to review all curriculum materials and school library books and object to those they don’t want their child using.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, in terms of concerted attacks on public education in a single state,” Young says. “And it’s really devastating to see these bills become law.”
The Florida Department of Education recently rejected 54 of 132 submitted math textbooks from being used next school year, citing reasons that include “references to critical race theory” and “the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.” Some of the “problematic elements” in textbooks identified by the department included graphs of data on racial prejudice by age and political leaning, and a page that said students should “build proficiency with social awareness as they practice with empathizing with classmates” during a lesson on identifying numbers.
Social-emotional learning strategies are commonly used by schools to promote mental health and to help students cope with stress, which can hinder their ability to focus and learn in school. But, like critical race theory, the subject has become a target of conservative critics, who argue it focuses on discussions about identity and racial and gender equity.
Young says the rejection of the math textbooks is an early sign of how the state could approach enforcement of the “Stop WOKE” law moving forward.
“The Florida Department of Education, at a state level, is going to enforce this law to the absolute maximum that they can,” he says. “We don’t always see that in every state.”
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