Alan Grayson Summed Up DeSantis' School Agenda In 2 Words: "Stay Stupid"
Conservatives have always had an agenda regarding education— most of all, bolstering the existing social order. It’s what conservatism is all about. Historically, conservatives who have believed in educating the masses at all have favored the idea that schools should promote traditional values and existing social norms, such as patriotism, respect for authority, and a focus on religious and moral principles, not critical thinking. Edmund Burke, for example, believed that the goal of education should be the preservation of tradition and social order. Regarded as a key figure in the development of modern conservatism, Burke was skeptical of the idea of universal education to begin with, arguing that it could undermine traditional values and social order by promoting skepticism and radicalism. He believed that education should be focused on the moral and intellectual development of the elite, who would then serve as leaders and examples for the rest of society. In his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) the father of conservatism argued that education should be reserved for the elite, whom he believed were better suited to govern society.
Joseph de Maistre, an 18th century philosopher, often associated with the Counter-Enlightenment movement and the reactionism, also opposed education for the masses. He believed that education should be focused on transmitting traditional values and culture, rather than promoting individualism and rationalism. He argued that universal education could lead to moral relativism and social disorder, and that only a select few individuals were capable of handling the responsibilities of leadership and intellectual inquiry. In Considerations on France (1797) he was clear that the masses were incapable of grasping the complexities of society and should be kept in their place. Like modern proponents of reactionary thought— say Russell Kirk and Pat Buchanan— he advocated a return to an earlier or “more idealized” version of society.
Reactionaries tend to reject the changes brought about by modernity and advocate for a return to traditional values and institutions, often through authoritarian means. Charles Maurras was a French political theorist who lived from 1868 to 1952, a leading figure in the Action Française, a far-right movement that advocated for a return to the traditional monarchy and Catholicism. Julius Evola was an Italian philosopher who lived from 1898 to 1974 and was a leading figure in the Italian Fascist movement and later became associated with the far-right Nouvelle Droite movement. Francisco Franco put their philosophies into action in Spain until his death in 1975.
Today Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian philosopher and political theorist who was born in 1962, is associated with the Russian far-right and has advocated for a return to traditional values and institutions (as well as a greater role for Russia in global affairs). He has been a tremendous influence on Putin and both men view education as a crucial aspect of shaping society and promoting the values they advocate for. In his book, The Fourth Political Theory, Dugin argues that education should focus on cultivating a sense of identity and belonging in students. He believes that education should be centered around the cultural and historical traditions of a particular society, which he sees as the foundation for social unity and stability. He emphasizes the importance of moral education, which he believes should be grounded in a traditionalist worldview. He advocates for an education system that promotes values such as duty, honor, and sacrifice, and encourages students to develop a strong sense of responsibility towards their community and nation and is extremely critical of what he sees as the Westernization of education, arguing that the emphasis on individualism and liberalism in Western educational systems is damaging to society. He advocates for a more holistic approach to education that takes into account the spiritual, cultural, and historical dimensions of human experience.
Russell Kirk’s best known book, The Conservative Mind, argued for a revival of traditionalist conservatism and was a key piece in the formation of modern American reactionary politics. He believed that education should be grounded in tradition and aimed at preserving the cultural heritage of Western civilization and argued that the purpose of education was not only to impart practical skills and knowledge, but also to cultivate moral and spiritual values. In his book The Roots of American Order, he wrote that "education must be the discipline of the soul, not merely the training of the mind and the memory."
One of his disciples was Pat Buchanan who reintroduced xenophobia into the DNA of the Republican Party. He’s been aggressively critical of what he claims is liberal bias in education, and has advocated for a greater emphasis on teaching traditional values in schools. Buchanan demanded that schools should prioritize teaching "the moral code that guided our ancestors," and has criticized the perceived decline of moral values in American society.
I’m not saying that Republicans in the Florida legislature have read— or even necessarily know of— Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, let alone Joseph de Maistre, Charles Maurras, Julius Evola or Aleksandr Dugin, but their reactionary educational precepts have certainly been filtered down into their mind sets and are beginning to drastically pervert the Florida educational system. This morning, Hannah Natanson and Lori Rozsa reported about a raft of laws proposed by the GOP majority that would transform how Florida educates children. Those who argue that Trump is so much greater a threat than DeSantis, should consider carefully how DeSantis is attempting to restructure education, “from requiring teachers to use pronouns matching children’s sex as assigned at birth to establishing a universal school choice voucher program. The half-dozen bills, filed by a cast of GOP state representatives and senators, come shortly before the launch of Florida’s legislative session Tuesday. Other proposals in the mix include eliminating college majors in gender studies, nixing diversity efforts at universities and job protections for tenured faculty, strengthening parents’ ability to veto K-12 class materials and extending a ban on teaching about gender and sexuality— from third grade up to eighth grade… [T]he bills will restrict educators’ ability to instruct children honestly, harm transgender and nonbinary students and strip funding from public schools.”
“It really is further and further isolating LGBTQ students,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. “It’s making it hard for them to receive the full support that schools should be giving every child.”
Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, warned that the legislation— especially the bill that would prevent students from majoring in certain topics— threatens to undermine academic freedom.
“The state telling you what you can and cannot learn, that is inconsistent with democracy,” Mulvey said. “It silences debate, stifles ideas and limits the autonomy of educational institutions which ... made American higher education the envy of the world.”
Sen. Clay Yarborough (R), who introduced one of the 2023 education bills— Senate Bill 1320, which forbids requiring school staff and students to use “pronouns that do not correspond with [a] person’s sex” and delays education on sexual orientation and gender identity until after eighth grade— said in a statement that his law would enshrine the “God-given” responsibility of parents to raise their children.
“The decision about when and if certain topics should be introduced to young children belongs to parents,” Yarborough said in the statement. “The bill also protects students and teachers from being forced to use language that would violate their personal convictions.”
The proposed laws have a high likelihood of passing in the State House, where GOP legislators make up a supermajority. Even before Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) landslide victory in November, very few Republicans pushed back against his policy proposals, instead crafting and passing bills that align with the governor’s mission to remake education in Florida from kindergarten through college.
This year’s crop of proposed education bills accelerates those efforts, expanding on controversial ideas from the past two years and adding a few more. Tina Descovich, co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty and a Florida resident, said her group backs the DeSantis education agenda “100 percent"— and that she thinks his policies are catching on outside the state.
“You see governors picking up education as a top issue, and you even see presidential candidates now putting education as a top issue," she said. "I think Gov. DeSantis has set the path for that.”
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, predicted the education laws will play well with voters both in Florida and nationwide, boosting DeSantis’s chances at the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“The direction of this policy is sensible policy," Hess said, referring especially to laws limiting young children’s learning on sex and gender. “It is both attractive to the DeSantis base but also has been shown to poll quite well with the center right, the center and even with parts of the center left.”
A May 2022 Fox News poll found that 55 percent of parents favor state laws that bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with students before fourth grade. An October 2022 University of Southern California survey, meanwhile, found a partisan split: More than 80 percent of Democrats said high school students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, compared to roughly a third of Republicans. Just 7 percent of adults in both political camps supported assigning reading that depicts sex between people of the same sex to elementary-schoolers, per the survey.
The bills in Florida come as at least 25 states have passed 64 laws in the last three academic years reshaping what children can learn and do at school, according to a Washington Post tally. Many of these laws circumscribe education on race, gender and sexual identity, boost parental oversight of school libraries and curriculums or restrict the rights of transgender children in classrooms and on the playing field.
Florida already passed several such laws, including the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which prohibits certain ways of teaching about race. (A judge blocked some aspects of the law in November.) Another is the “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, which forbids teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation during grades K-3 and requires that education on those subjects be age-appropriate in older grades.
One of the bills put forward in the 2023 legislative session builds directly on the parental rights law: House Bill 1223 would expand the ban on gender and sexuality education to extend through eighth grade. That bill also says school staffers, contractors and students cannot be required to use pronouns that do not match the sex a person was assigned at birth.
“It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution,” the bill states, “that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”
Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, said the bill will compound damage already wrought by the “Parental Rights in Education” act.
“That resulted in book banning, eroding supportive guidelines and led teachers to leave the profession,” Maurer said. “This doubles down.”
House Rep. Adam Anderson (R-District 57), who sponsored the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida legislators have introduced two other pieces of similar legislation: the near-identical Senate bill filed by Yarborough and House Bill 1069, brought by Rep. Stan McClain (R-District 27). The latter bill requires that students in grades 6-12 be taught that “sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth.” It also grants parents greater power to read over and object to school instructional materials, as well as limit their child’s ability to explore the school library.
…“It’s a complete takeover of higher education,” said Kenneth Nunn, who stepped down earlier this year from his role as professor of law at the University of Florida— in part because of the politics in the state. The “attacks” on higher education "reduce the reputation and perhaps the accreditation of the state institutions,” Nunn said.
Organizations focused on civil liberties are also objecting. PEN America, which advocates for free speech, said the bill would impose “perhaps the most draconian and censorious restrictions on public colleges and universities in the country.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said the bill is “laden with unconstitutional provisions hostile to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
…In early January, the governor’s budget office mandated that all universities report the amount of money they are expending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Later that month, DeSantis announced a slate of reforms to higher education, including prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
A sixth education-related bill, House Bill 1, introduced by Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-District 83), renders all parents eligible to receive state funds to send their children to private school, stripping away a previous low-income requirement, although low-income families would still be prioritized. It comes as the school choice movement is surging nationally, with Republican-led states passing laws that grant state funds to parents who can spend the money on religious and private schools.
Tuck did not respond to a request for comment.
Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said this bill is the one that hurts most.
“We’re not very well funded in public education in Florida to start with,” she said. “And their answer to that is to funnel money away from public education?”
The laws are moving through committee as DeSantis continues an ongoing feud with the College Board over a new AP African American studies course, which Florida has rejected as being too “woke.” DeSantis recently said the legislature “is going to look to reevaluate” whether the state should offer any AP courses at all, or the SAT exam.
Battles over state education have also spilled into other arenas. A dispute over the Parental Rights bill lasts year ended with DeSantis pushing for a state takeover of a half-century-old special taxing district for Walt Disney World. DeSantis began excoriating Disney after the company’s former CEO criticized the “Parental Rights in Education” law.
Are Florida Republicans trying to brainwash a generation of children, rather than just dumb them down? There's a value in keeping government out of education but it's nearly impossible to just leave it to increasingly reviled professionals and experts. “Remember that universal public education,” Grayson cheerily reminded me this morning, “was created in this country by the same people who separated church and state. Horace Mann then basically universalized non-sectarian education. As usual, conservatives are projecting. They claim to be fighting indoctrination and ‘grooming,’ so that they can indoctrinate.”