Conservative political leaders across the country are launching attacks on public education by limiting what instructors can teach about racism and gender, demonizing and restricting the rights of LGBTQ students and teachers, and banning books that they deem “inappropriate.” American Oversight is using public records to investigate these egregious attempts to politicize, censor, and weaken public education, from early elementary school through higher education.
Leading the charge is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has all but declared war against students of color and gay and transgender students in his home state. In 2022, DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibited the teaching of certain concepts that could make students feel “guilt, anguish, or any other forms of psychological distress” because of their race or national origin, along with other vague restrictions that serve to stifle discussion of racial injustice. He also signed the Parental Rights in Education Act — also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — which banned teaching children about gender or sexual identity. Other DeSantis-supported laws include those banning transgender female student athletes from playing on girls’ and women’s teams and requiring that books available in classrooms go through an extra layer of review, actions that have been echoed by conservative leaders with similar agendas in other states.
In January 2023, DeSantis said he would reject a proposed Advanced Placement African American Studies course for including content such as “intersectionality and activism” and “Black Queer studies.” The College Board later removed many of the criticized contemporary Black authors and content from its required curriculum nationwide, though asserting that the changes were not in response to political pressure from Florida. DeSantis and other conservative leaders have also attacked the concept of social-emotional learning.
The Florida governor has also targeted higher education, including by working to turn New College of Florida, a progressive public college, into a conservative institution. After replacing the school’s board of trustees with conservative allies — including prominent anti-critical race theory activist Christopher Rufo — the new trustees appointed DeSantis’ former education commissioner as the college’s president. DeSantis has also expressed his intent to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public universities in the state; his newly appointed trustees at New College voted to scrap the school’s DEI programs in February. Republican leaders have also targeted DEI programs in other conservative states, including in Texas.
Across the country, states are passing measures to restrict the rights of students, drum up political support among aggrieved conservative parents, and whitewash and deteriorate public education, ultimately shoring up school choice movements. Often under the false banner of “parents’ rights,” and taking cues from far-right groups like Moms for Liberty and the Family Research Council, these efforts threaten to leave underrepresented minorities behind and bring classrooms into the arena of right-wing culture wars.
American Oversight is investigating these and a variety of other serious affronts to the civil rights or education of students in Florida and elsewhere. We have filed records requests for emails between state Education Department officials and far-right groups, as well as for communications about school policies, curricula, and related issues. We have also submitted requests to sheriff departments in Florida for communications with Moms for Liberty about enforcing book bans, and asked for records from states that opposed President Biden’s student debt-relief plan. We’re also investigating the anti-critical race theory stunt pulled by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.