TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday announced plans to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory in his latest step onto the front lines of the nation’s culture wars.
The Republican governor debuted the proposal as part of a larger, higher education legislative package that is expected to be taken up by the GOP-controlled statehouse when its regular session begins in March.
The second-term governor, who is widely expected to launch a 2024 White House bid in the late spring or early summer, has emerged as a fierce opponent of so-called woke policies on race, gender and public health. Such positions endear him to the GOP’s conservative base but threaten to alienate independents and moderate voters in both parties who are influential in presidential politics.
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what scholars viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
“I think people want to see true academics and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing that seems to accompany all this,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Bradenton, adding that critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs, known as DEI, would get “no funding, and that will wither on the vine.”
In a statement, the governor’s office said the proposal “raises the standards of learning and civil discourse of public higher education in Florida” by “prohibiting higher education institutions from using any funding, regardless of source, to support DEI, CRT, and other discriminatory initiatives.”
Later in the day, the newly conservative majority on the once progressive New College of Florida board of trustees — most of whom DeSantis recently appointed — voted to oust the current president, Patricia Okker. They also voted to begin debate on whether to abolish the office of diversity, equity and inclusion, and related programs. The final word on diversity, equity and inclusion programs will come at another meeting.
The overall idea is to transform the school of fewer than 1,000 students in Sarasota into what the new trustees call a “classical” liberal arts school.
“I think it’s time for us to set a new standard,” said one of the new trustees, conservative activist Christopher Rufo. “I think new leadership is the expectation.”
The trustees voted to hire Richard Corcoran as the next New College president. The Republican former state House speaker and education commissioner is a close ally of DeSantis’.
Before the meeting, dozens of students held a rally outside to oppose major changes to the school and its mission, which is known for its open approach to coursework without specific grades, and being a safe place for many LGBTQ students who feel marginalized in other schools.
“That’s what’s at stake today and what we’re here to protect: the freedom to learn, the freedom to think and the freedom to be who we are,” said fourth-year student Madison Markham.
As the 2024 presidential primary season begins, ambitious Republicans are increasingly eager to lean into cultural divisions as they court the conservative voters who typically decide GOP primary contests.
Former President Donald Trump unveiled his own education plan last week that promises to cut federal funding for any school or program that includes “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.”
“Our public schools have been taken over by the radical-left maniacs,” Trump, the only declared candidate in the race so far, said in a video announcing the plan.
DeSantis’ overall higher education proposal was expected after his administration requested in late December that state colleges submit spending data and other information on programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory.
The governor is also pushing for education administrators to “realign” courses to provide historically accurate information and to not include identity politics. DeSantis’ proposals have not yet been introduced as formal legislation, but the GOP-controlled statehouse is often eager to carry out his initiatives.
DeSantis and other conservatives have long argued that critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs are racially divisive and discriminatory — and are often cited in criticism of what they call “woke” ideology in education.
Last year the governor signed legislation dubbed the Stop WOKE Act that restricts certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses. The law bars instruction that says members of one race are inherently racist or should feel guilt for past actions committed by others of the same race, among other things.
This month, the DeSantis administration blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools, saying it violates state law and is historically inaccurate.
So far, at least 25 states have considered legislation or other steps to limit how race and racism can be taught, according to an analysis from Education Week. Eight states, all Republican-led, have banned or limited the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions. The bans largely address what can be taught inside the classroom.
Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.