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Educational censorship in Florida has gone too far, and DeSantis knows it | Opinion

As Gov. Ron DeSantis has tacitly admitted, the tide of censorship in Florida schools and colleges has gone too far. And it’s long past time to reverse this destructive trend.

More harmful legislation poised to undermine our education system is working its way through Tallahassee this week. Despite an outcry from organizations across the state and country, the House of Representatives is expected to pass House Bill 1291 at any moment.

This bill, like its now-blocked predecessor, the Stop WOKE Act, attempts to censor college-level teacher preparation courses, essential for those entering the profession. Alongside its counterpart, Senate Bill 1372, the bill prohibits programs that are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” The bill comes amid a severe shortage of teachers in the state.

Last week, the governor and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., alongside one of the founders of Moms for Liberty, addressed the rampant book banning in Florida. While DeSantis clung to the refrain that “book bans are a hoax,” he also urged the Florida Legislature to “fine-tune” the school book challenge process. The real message from the press conference and deeper truth is that book bans in our state have spiraled out of control and DeSantis and Diaz know it.

While DeSantis and Diaz continue to blame others for the crisis they orchestrated, their admission that the situation is toxic and must be addressed opens a path to cleaning up the mess.

These are important cracks in the facade of the unrelenting wave of censorship we have seen since 2021, but they represent only incremental steps. Florida’s education system is experiencing dire consequences and harm from the actions of this administration and Legislature. It is also far too little when the Florida Legislature persists in attempting to embed erasure and censorship at the core of our education system.

These bills incorporate the same provisions of the Stop WOKE Act enshrined in the Florida Statutes, which limit classroom instruction on race and gender in Florida’s public schools, colleges and universities. In a lawsuit filed to challenge these provisions, federal Judge Mark E. Walker found such prohibitions to be “positively dystopian... if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”’

The failure of the Stop WOKE Act serves as stark evidence that bills like SB 1372/HB 1291 offer no meaningful change to improve Floridians’ lives. Quite the opposite. The range of educational censorship bills advanced in the past three years are destroying our educational system, with generational consequences for all students passing through Florida schools. These bills, coupled with local movements to ban books, are working to keep Floridians in the dark, uninformed and uneducated.

We need our teachers. We need them well-informed, educated and empowered to prepare the next generation as citizens in a pluralistic society. And we need the people who train them to be able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal.

What we are seeing now is a collective desire to restore reason, logic and common sense to our school system, following years of worsening confusion, fear and disarray. DeSantis should listen to his own advice; if he is the one calling out this overreach chaos, he should be willing to take steps to curb it.

The wave of educational censorship has gone too far, but the tide can and will change. The Legislature should vote no on HB 1291 and SB 1372 and if not, the governor should swiftly veto. Florida should be a beacon of academic freedom and free expression, a state that embraces and learns from its history and shines based on the diversity of thought and experience that are the fabric of our state. We are not, in fact, where “WOKE goes to die.” This is Florida, where we, all of us, come to flourish.

Katie Blankenship is director of PEN America’s Florida office.