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DeSantis signs education legislation

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jun 24, 2021

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis lauded a federal court decision in a case brought by the State of Florida to overturn CDC restrictions on the cruise industry. / File photo

Speaking at Three Oaks Middle School in Fort Myers on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the signing of three new laws governing the teaching of civics and history in Florida classrooms.

While two of the laws had unanimous backing in the state House and Senate, a third relating to diversity of viewpoints and intellectual freedom on state college campuses proved more divisive — passing in the Senate by a vote of 23-15 and in the House by a vote of 77-42.

The college education bill, known as HB233, requires the State Board of Education and Board of Governors to annually assess intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at state campuses. The law also prohibits the state and its public universities of shielding students from ideas and opinions they may find to be offensive. The law defines intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity as “a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”

The bills requires the State Board of Education to select or create “an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

The board would publish its assessments of the schools annually based on the survey.

At the press conference, DeSantis criticized those who support socialism or communism, and expressed support for school curriculums which, under one of the new laws passed, will teach about those who escaped countries who had repressive totalitarian regimes.

DeSantis criticized what he saw as repression of free speech at some colleges.

“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you would be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is really, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed. We don’t want that in Florida. You need to have a true contest of ideas. Students shouldn’t be shielded from ideas,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis said he wants state universities to be focused on critical thinking and “academic rigor. We do not want them as hotbeds for state ideology.”

For State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, whose district encompasses most of Lee County including Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach, the value of “viewpoint diversity” at colleges was important. Rodrigues, who works as budget manager at Florida Gulf Coast University, said “We have a responsibility to teach students how to think for themselves rather than indoctrinating them on what to think. Without a measurement of intellectual diversity, it is impossible to know if Florida taxpayers are providing an education or an indoctrination.”

Rodrigues worked on drafting the wording of the college education bill with Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, whose district includes Lehigh Acres and parts of northern Lee County.

“When educational institutions place a premium on people that look different but think the same, that’s not diversity, that’s conformity,” Roach said.

The bill was opposed by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, who stated “this law is yet another way conservative Republicans want to indoctrinate their political followers into believing their voices are being suppressed on college campuses. Laws like this only stoke the flames of the cultural wars that divide us instead of focusing on policies that improve higher education and people’s lives.”

Berman said colleges are already required to allow students to express their views.

“It’s called the First Amendment,” Berman said. “Forcing all public colleges and universities to conduct a yearly assessment of the range of viewpoints among their faculty, students and staff will only increase the potential for the most vulnerable to be marginalized and ridiculed.”

One of the bills which passed unanimously is House Bill 5 which requires the Department of Education to create an integrated civic curriculum which will assist students in developing “an understanding of their shared rights and responsibilities as residents of the state and of the founding principles of the United States.”

DeSantis also signed Senate Bill 1108, which requires high school and state college students to take a civic literacy assessment to graduate.

The bill also set sets a number of requirements for learning and graduation, including the number of English Arts classes and requirements for taking the SAT and ACT tests.

The bill also expands the character development curriculum for high school juniors and seniors to include instructions on how to register to vote.

Lee County Schools interim Superintendent Dr. Ken Savage, who also attended the governor’s announcement while surrounded by students from middle school debate teams in Lee County, said “The bills you will sign today will put them on track to become engaged citizens, learning how to negotiate different perspectives and engage productively with each other.”

DeSantis said more would be announced in respect to the civics components of the bills, including bonuses for civics teachers.