Florida Governor Ron DeSantis calls his Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative a model for the entire nation. This is the rightwing agenda that will be fed to American children and their teachers if DeSantis or someone like him ever gets to be President of the United States.
DeSantis is a scary guy. He is amongst the most rightwing of leading Republicans, but comes across as less crazy than Donald Trump so more likely to win support from traditional Republican voters. On the issues, DeSantis is anti-choice on abortion but pro-choice on COVID vaccinations, pro-charter school expansion and private school vouchers, opposes federal stimulus spending and climate action initiatives, opposes same-sex marriage, restoring voting rights to former felons, and higher taxes on wealthy corporations, and supports voting restrictions that limit democracy. DeSantis also attacks Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs in schools and teaching about racism in American society.
DeSantis’ Florida Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative will establish training for teachers and award people who complete the program with a Florida Civics Seal of Excellence and a $3,000 stipend. This summer, the Florida Department of Education is holding 10 regional 3-day civics professional learning trainings for over 2,500 teachers.
The Civic Literacy Initiative will also revise Florida’s civics curriculum and support implementation of revised civics and government standards in K-12 public schools. According to Florida’s Education Commissioner, “The Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative is an all-in approach to fully elevate civic literacy and education for Florida’s students and teachers, beyond any state in the nation. Florida’s continued commitment to lead and foster the values we hope to see in our society will not only help develop great students, but will create humble, civically-minded citizens of tomorrow.”
The Florida Civics standards require that high school students “recognize indicators of democratization as a system of free and fair elections, active civic participation, the protection of human rights, and the rule of law.” But unlike other state civic standards, they do not encourage actual student civic participation. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (NCSS, 2013), is not official in any state but it does often serve as a model for state guidelines. The NCSS framework specifically endorses student activism. According to the framework, “Civics is not limited to the study of politics and society; it also encompasses participation in classrooms and schools, neighborhoods, groups, and organizations . . . In civics, students learn to contribute appropriately to public processes and discussions of real issues. Their contributions to public discussions may take many forms, ranging from personal testimony to abstract arguments. They will also learn civic practices such as voting, volunteering, jury service, and joining with others to improve society. Civics enables students not only to study how others participate, but also to practice participating and taking informed action themselves.” The specific aim of the 12th grade New York State Participation in Government and Civics course is “to provide students with opportunities to become engaged in the political process.” Even earlier Florida middle school standards encouraged students to “Experience the responsibilities of citizens at the local, state, or federal levels.”
Reports from teacher participants in the “professional learning trainings” expose the ideological underpinnings of un-civic illiteracy in Florida and the “kind of humble, civically-minded citizens” DeSantis envisions.
According to an article in the Miami Herald the “new standards portray the founders as against the idea of the separation of church and state, downplay the role of the colonies in slavery, and push conservative judicial theories. While the state Department of Education claimed, “Every lesson we teach is based on history, not ideology or any form of indoctrination,” Barbara Segal, a 12th-grade government teacher at Fort Lauderdale High, described the standards and workshops as “very skewed” with “a very strong Christian fundamentalist way toward analyzing different quotes and different documents. That was concerning.” Veteran social studies teacher Richard Judd, described a “disturbing” attempt to “both censor and to drive or propagandize particular points of view.”
A Herald review of the 200-page package and accompanying slide show found that a main theme was correcting supposed “misconceptions” about the nation’s founders. The un-civic illiteracy standards acknowledge that two-thirds of the founding fathers were slave owners, but insists that “even those that held slaves did not defend the institution.”
One slide claimed that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.” Another slide maintained that they believed without support for religion in the new nation citizens become “licentious” and vulnerable to tyranny. The workshops blamed Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s for distorting our understanding of the importance of religion in society and in the views of the Founders. The 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that school-sponsored prayer violated the First Amendment was compared with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that legalized racial segregation in the United States. According to the Herald article, the Florida un-civic illiteracy standards got the date wrong for Plessy, reporting it as 1892.
The un-civic illiteracy workshops were developed in coordination with Hillsdale College, the Bill of Rights Institute, and the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. Hillsdale College is an “ultra-conservative” private “Christian” school based in Michigan committed to maintaining the “immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.” Its President was recorded claiming, “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and the “philosophic understanding at the heart of modern education is enslavement.” Many lower-echelon Trump administration appointees and Republican Party Congressional aides were recent Hillsdale graduates.
The Bill of Rights Institute was founded by the Charles G. Koch Foundation in 1999 to promote a rightwing interpretation of the Constitution in schools. Charles Koch is a right-wing fossil fuel billionaire who also funds the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network. The Bill of Rights Institute is a member of the ALEC Education Task Force.
The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship is a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. The Lou Frey Institute will develop curriculum for DeSantis civics “academies” scheduled to open in 2023. The Lou Frey Institute also developed a 100-question multiple-choice test so students can demonstrate civic literacy test. The passing score on the test would be 60 and since the test would be used over and over again teachers and students would have the questions in advance it won’t test very much. The test would satisfy high school and college civics requirements under Florida’s model Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative.
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