Two teachers, one retired, one hoping to make a difference, spoke to Floricua about the obstacles that educators are facing as a result of the Republican governor’s extreme right-wing education policies.
The first thing “Patricia” would like to say is–well, that her name is not Patricia, and that she hates using a pseudonym.
“Growing up, my family used to call me ‘Salmon’, because salmon swim against the current,” laughs the 34-year-old Elementary school teacher from Miami. “I loved to speak my mind! The fact that I don’t feel comfortable speaking to you using my name tells you all you need to know.”
Patricia is referring to the current climate of “censorship and fear” that pervades many educators in Florida.
“It is better to shut up,” she says.
That’s because schools across the Sunshine State are grappling with new education policies that opponents call “draconian.”
A prime example is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity to students in grades K-12.
To Patricia, the law seems unnecessary, as “teachers don’t talk about these issues in the classroom anyway,” she says. But she still worries that anything she says could be misconstrued.
“I personally don’t know of any teacher that teaches kids about sexuality or gender identity. Even before this law, there was none of that. But children are naturally curious, they ask questions, and what are you supposed to say if they ask? You don’t know how a parent will react just for answering a child’s question.”
She also worries about a student she had last year, who is being raised by his two mothers. How will he feel, now that he can’t speak freely and openly about his family?
“You can’t erase a child’s identity or make him feel there’s something wrong with his family, and expect it will not affect him,” she says. “I think what is happening to education in this state is… frustrante, deshumanizante [frustrating, dehumanizing],” she says in her native Spanish.
A Push to the Right
Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay Law” is not Republican Gov. DeSantis’ only effort to steer Florida education to the extreme right. Other measures include:
- A new set of standards to teach Black American history that include the notion that slaves benefited from slavery, as they developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
- A new “Parental Authorization for Deviation from Student’s Legal Name Form,” which, due to the passage of House Bill 1069, requires parents to sign if they agree to allow their child to use a name or nickname aside from their legally given name on any campus.
- The form also applies to transgender students who do not want to use their legal name, even though under the law, school employees can still decline to address the student by the pronouns of their choosing, even if the parent has signed the form.
- Approving the use of scholastic material from PragerU Kids—an offshoot of PragerU, an extreme right-wing organization—in public school classrooms across Florida. PragerU Kids’ videos downplay the role of racism in US history and modern society, embrace Christian nationalism, dispute climate change, and express doubts about inequalities based on gender, race and sexuality.
- A statewide book ban movement—aided by DeSantis’ backed measures—that has made Florida the state with the second highest number of school-related book bans in the country, according to a recent analysis published by PEN America, a free speech and literary organization. In Hillsborough County, this has led administrators to restrict the complete works of William Shakespeare, as they are seen to contain “sexual” references. As a result, students in class will only read approved excerpts from the plays.
A Whitewashed Vision of American History
For a book lover like Sylvia Vera-Leon, a recently retired schoolteacher from South Florida’s Little Havana neighborhood, the day she saw teachers pull down books from their classroom shelves and box them up is forever seared in her memory.
“This ban has had a terrible effect on grade schoolteachers, because they started doubting the books that they had, and to feel very self-conscious about them, and became very reluctant to put anything out,” she remembers.
This, Vera-Leon says, will have profound consequences for Florida students.
“As a lifelong teacher, I think the measures and the actions that DeSantis and the state have taken have moved back the chances of studies being more analytical, and kids being pushed to actually learn more of their history in a more critical way,” she says.
Knowing history, she says, teaches us where we came from and where we are today.
But after DeSantis passed a law restricting how educators can talk about America’s racial history in K-12 classrooms, Vera-Leon belives many teachers will feel stymied when it comes to talking about race.
“The students are going to get a whitewashed view of American history, which doesn’t help them become informed citizens, or people with a critical view who can actually make our world better in terms of social justice,” she says.
The Exodus Continues
A school curriculum that veers to the extreme right is not the Sunshine State’s only problem when it comes to education. School districts in DeSantis’ Florida continue to place at the bottom of the national ranking in key metrics like teacher salaries, student funding, and allocating funds to high poverty level areas. In fact, Florida ranks 48th in the nation for average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association (NEA).
“Teachers in Miami-Dade County are not well paid,” says Vera-Leon. “Teachers that have been working for 20 years are not making more than maybe 46 or 47K, even after a raise. That’s a big problem, because when you start a career, you want to make sure that you can afford housing and a comfortable life. I know teachers who would like to leave [the state].”
The low pay, along with the sharp swing to the extreme right Florida education has taken, has led to a massive teacher exodus across the state. As of the spring of 2023, the Florida Education Association (FEA) reported that there were 5,294 teacher vacancies in the state. This is more than double the 2,217 vacancies reported in January 2019, when Gov. Ron DeSantis took office.
“I will leave the first chance I get,” says Patricia, who hopes to find a teaching job “maybe up north, where I can actually teach and get paid a decent salary.”
Leaving, she says, will break her heart.
“I love Florida; I grew up here, all my best memories are here. I’d hate to leave my family. But I feel I have no choice, really. I became a teacher because I love, love to teach. I love to see a child learn, to believe I helped make a difference. I would also love to make a decent living, you know? But teaching in DeSantis’ Florida has become impossible.”