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How Florida's Gov. DeSantis is exerting more control over the state's schools

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, has made education a major part of his agenda. He has set limits on how topics involving race and sexual orientation can be taught in schools. He's approved so-called viewpoint diversity surveys for colleges and universities. And now he's getting involved in local school board races. NPR's Greg Allen tells us these are just some of the measures DeSantis is taking to exert more control over Florida's schools.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Ron DeSantis has made it clear how he views public schools and what they're teaching children. He doesn't trust them.

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RON DESANTIS: Following woke indoctrination in our schools - that is a road to ruin for this country, and we're not going to let it happen in Florida.

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ALLEN: DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential contender, has signed a number of measures aimed at preventing the sort of indoctrination he and his Republican supporters fear is taking place. His Stop WOKE Act sets limits on how issues involving race may be taught and allows parents to sue teachers and school districts that violate it. Another, the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed Don't Say Gay by critics, bans any instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in the earliest grades and says, beyond that, it must be age-appropriate.

Robert Cassanello, who teaches history at the University of Central Florida, says although the law just took effect this month, it's already had an impact.

ROBERT CASSANELLO: There have been high school teachers who've reported to me that they've been told by their superiors, don't mention gay, lesbian or any sexuality in class. Don't even approach this with 11th or 12th graders. And these were things that they had previously taught.

ALLEN: Cassanello was part of a lawsuit challenging the limits on teaching about race that are part of DeSantis' Stop WOKE Act. Governor DeSantis' focus on the schools really took shape with the onset of the COVID pandemic, when he battled with school districts over face masks and other issues. Since then, he's made parental rights one of his main issues, taking aim at school boards and administrators. He's rolled out a new civics education initiative that he says will make sure students aren't taught a distorted view of history.

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DESANTIS: You're learning the real history. You're learning the real facts. But it's not going to be done in a way that's trying to indoctrinate students with whatever modern agenda that somebody may have.

ALLEN: Barbara Segal, a high school government teacher in Fort Lauderdale, recently took a three-day training session on Florida's new civic standards.

BARBARA SEGAL: They were pushing an ideological agenda.

ALLEN: In the training materials, one slide said it was a misconception that the Founding Fathers wanted strict separation of church and state and that they in fact wanted religion to be promoted. Segal says some of the most jarring material seemed to downplay the role of slavery in the country's founding, including one that said...

SEGAL: Only 4% of enslaved people came to America, which means we're not that bad.

ALLEN: Segal, a teacher with 18 years in the classroom, says DeSantis' education initiatives are aimed at what she calls a false narrative - that schools are promoting a woke progressive agenda.

SEGAL: I hate to say this, but I feel that maybe, possibly he's pandering to a base for reelection, and that's very hurtful.

ALLEN: All this comes as Florida is facing a critical teacher shortage with more than 9,500 vacant jobs statewide. In Brevard County, school board member Jennifer Jenkins says teachers are demoralized. Many have retired or found jobs in other fields.

JENNIFER JENKINS: I don't know how we're going to continue to live in this hostile environment, how we're going to encourage educators to enter the field and stick around. It's really, really scary.

ALLEN: School board members have become a particular target. Jenkins has had protesters outside her home, vandalism and threats of violence stemming from her support for a school face mask mandate. DeSantis has begun endorsing candidates running for school board seats, races that have long been nonpartisan. And his gubernatorial reelection campaign has released a survey for school board members that includes questions about parental rights, school choice and critical race theory.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.