How California and Florida both use schools to fight the culture wars

This story appeared on Calmatters

From left, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photos by Rebecca Blackwell, AP Photo and Miguel Gutierrez Jr, CalMatters

In summary

Despite how Gov. Gavin Newsom portrays it, Florida and California both use their education systems to promote ideological agendas.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is a self-appointed crusader against the social and educational policies of red states, particularly Florida, describing their governors as repressive authoritarians.

Just a few days ago, for instance, Newsom sent a letter to textbook publishers, demanding to know whether they are obeying Florida’s command to remove passages about race and other historical subjects from books. Implicitly, Newsom threatens publishers that catering to Florida risks being frozen out of California.

“California will not be complicit in Florida’s attempt to whitewash history through laws and backroom deals; parents have a right to know what’s happening in the dark to undermine our children’s education – and California deserves to know whether any of these companies designing textbooks for our state’s classrooms are the same ones kowtowing to Florida’s extremist agenda,” Newsom wrote.

Last month, Newsom paid a visit to the New College of Florida and sharply criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to curb the college’s progressive culture.

DeSantis appointed a conservative majority to the college’s board of trustees, replaced its president with an ally and abolished its office devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion programs as part of a larger effort to reshape public education in what DeSantis calls the “Free State of Florida.”

“I can’t believe what you’re dealing with. It’s just an unbelievable assault,” Newsom told New College students and faculty members. “It’s common with everything he’s doing, bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities. Weakness, Ron DeSantis, weakness masquerading as strength across the board.”

DeSantis wants to shield Florida’s students from influences he deems subversive and position himself as a cultural warrior on the right as he runs for president.

The flip side, however, is what’s happening in Newsomland – making the cultural hallmarks DeSantis wants to repress more or less mandatory in California’s schools and colleges.

While DeSantis abolishes the New College’s diversity, equity and inclusion office, the University of California requires faculty to write “diversity statements” that embrace those goals.

For years, UC faculty members have debated whether the requirement interferes with academic freedom, with critics likening it to the “loyalty oaths” once used to weed out those with left-of-center leanings. They were later invalidated by the state Supreme Court.

Afterwards, UC adopted a policy that “No political test shall ever be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee,” and critics say UC’s diversity statement requirement violates that policy.

This month, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of psychologist John Haltigan, alleging that the mandatory statement violates his free speech rights and blocked him from a faculty position at UC Santa Cruz.

Meanwhile, California’s K-12 schools are now required to provide ethnic studies and its model curriculum is permeated with the social theory that Florida wants to ban – essentially that nonwhite Americans are subjected to continuing racism and repression by whites.

The model sees students learning to “critique empire building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, and other forms of power and oppression.” 

Early model versions were more assertively leftist, but Jewish groups balked at their characterization of Zionism as repression and the wording was toned down before adoption in 2021.

The changes angered some members of the team that wrote the initial draft, and they have offered to consult with school systems that want to comply with the ethnic studies mandate. However, that’s sparked a backlash from The Deborah Project, a Jewish public interest law firm devoted to fighting antisemitism.

The organization has sued several California school districts, alleging that their ethnic studies programs are using anti-Zionist materials from the original curriculum.

Florida and California – both using education to inculcate ideological credos.

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