The Christian College Upending Florida’s Schools

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Mary Harris: This year, back to school season feels kind of sad for Anita Carson.

Speaker 2: This week is really the first time that it’s hitting me that I’m not going to be in a classroom again.

Mary Harris: Anita taught sixth grade for seven years. She quit this summer.

Speaker 2: And that’s a little bit heartbreaking for me because I love teaching. I love my students. And so it was really hard to leave.

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Mary Harris: It’s not like Anita was planning to change careers. It’s just that she’d been teaching in Polk County, Florida, and the way Governor Ron DeSantis in the Florida legislature worked hand in hand to upend the public school curriculum last year. It felt like too much. After that, don’t say gay bill passed. Parents started questioning Anita’s judgment. Like when she sent an email to the families of kids she taught, saying something totally banal, like, Tell your kid to check if they’ve got any missing assignments.

Speaker 2: And I had sent out basically those words using they as a common placeholder for pronouns, because I’m not going to write each individual parent. I’m just going to send out please make sure that your student has. They need to make sure. And I got a text back from a mom saying, you’re not allowed to use that pronoun crap anymore.

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Mary Harris: Then this mom reported Anita to her principal.

Speaker 2: So we have now empowered parents that have extreme views about what’s acceptable in schools, feeling perfectly happy to call out things that have never been an issue before.

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Mary Harris: By the end of the year, Anita knew she could not keep teaching. So she got a job with Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. But like she said, she misses the classroom.

Speaker 2: The most horrifying piece of this is teachers have been for years calling for people, please come to parent conferences. Please come to the curriculum. Please come in and and be on this committee where we’re choosing books for our library, begging for people to come and be involved. And so it’s really disheartening to have parents now showing up, but showing up because they think that we’re doing something horrible.

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Mary Harris: Over the next couple of days, we’re going to try to figure out how Florida got here first, how schools became governor. Ron DeSantis, his number one priority. It turns out all the attention grabbing education bills he’s been passing. They were years in the making. And Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around.

Mary Harris: If you step back. The changes to Florida’s educational system over the last year have been pretty breathtaking. It’s not just the passage of House Bill 1557, the so so-called don’t say gay bill. Florida also passed something called the Stop Woke Act, which bans the teaching of so-called critical race theory. Governor Ron DeSantis and his Commissioner of Education have also exerted more control over the state’s curriculum and textbooks. Miami Herald Education Reporter Sommer Brugal sees this particular moment in time as the beginning of an experiment.

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Speaker 3: I think the governor has made an effort to make education and education legislation part of his I don’t want to say brand, but maybe his personality in terms of what he plans to focus on. It did feel like all of a sudden education was number one priority in Tallahassee. It was Santos’s number one agenda, and all these bills were coming out of nowhere.

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Speaker 3: And you had to really look back and say, Well, did all these things come out of nowhere? Or has there been this kind of growing effort to shape and reform and frankly control how public education works in this state? These bills that passed this year are not, you know, single efforts, but they’re more so part of this larger effort and larger end goal to reshape public education in Florida.

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Mary Harris: Are discovered that this larger effort is being driven not just by Florida’s governor, but by a small liberal arts college in Michigan known as Hillsdale. Hillsdale has been described as a citadel of American conservatism. It’s Christian, and it’s a champion of what it calls patriotic education. When The New York Times 1619 Project became a conservative lightning rod, leaders at Hillsdale worked with the Trump administration to put together an alternative. They called it the 1776 curriculum.

Speaker 3: So, yeah, you had you had individuals such as former president Donald Trump. Donald Trump Jr. All have ties or connections to this politically influential college.

Mary Harris: Do you know when Ron DeSantis first reached out to Hillsdale or anyone associated with the college?

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Speaker 3: Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was around 2014. It definitely wasn’t in the last two or three years.

Mary Harris: At the time, DeSantis was in the House of Representatives.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm.

Speaker 3: Yeah. So that I mean, that just goes to show, while their relationship hasn’t been, you know, outwardly public or appears to be new, if you will, the relationship between the two definitely dates back a number of years.

Mary Harris: If you lean right, Hillsdale is kind of iconic. Ted Cruz has been a commencement speaker here. So is Clarence Thomas. And the school started a series of leadership seminars that are kind of like right wing TED talks.

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Speaker 2: It’s a wonderful night to be with you all in the freest state in these United States.

Mary Harris: I was looking at some of the lectures and like leadership conference videos that Hillsdale posts and you can see Ron DeSantis speaking at them and you can see one of his top deputies, this former commissioner of education, Richard Corcoran, talking to.

Speaker 2: So what I say to conservatives is very simple. You got to giddy up and get ready to tussle, put on the full armor of God stand.

Mary Harris: It was interesting was really saying the quiet parts loud.

Speaker 3: Yeah. And there wasn’t an effort to conceal or minimize the goal. One story that we did includes the president of the college calling DeSantis one of the most important people living that we need him, that the most important work is ahead of him. And then to kind of go full circle, when you go to DeSantis, he looks to Hillsdale and says, you know, I know that they have and I’m quoting here, I know they have the foundations necessary to be able to be helpful in pursuing conservative policies. And that quote is is specific to when he sees a resume from Hillsdale in terms of wanting to get that person to work for him or to be on the conservative side of policymaking.

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Speaker 2: If I get somebody from Hillsdale, I know they have the foundations necessary to be able to be helpful in pursuing conservative policies. And so he specifically.

Mary Harris: Said, I would be suspicious of someone who had a resume from Yale.

Speaker 2: Yes, from Yale. I would be negatively disposed to that individual. I mean, and.

Mary Harris: And he went to Yale.

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Speaker 3: He did. He did.

Speaker 2: Counter.

Mary Harris: Yeah. The other thing that stood out to me was that it didn’t feel like. The people discussing education at Hillsdale wanted to speak very much to people who disagreed with their ideas, their ideas being I mean, they’re pretty straightforward about like we are anti Black Lives Matter, we are, you know, anti really delving in to racial justice issues in school, those sorts of things. Um, and they don’t want to talk to the people who disagree with them. Like when Richard Corcoran, the commissioner of the Florida part of education, spoke, he was like bragging about having fired a teacher with a BLM flag in her classroom.

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Speaker 2: But you have to police them on a daily basis. I’ve censored or fired or terminated numerous teachers for doing that. I’m getting sued.

Mary Harris: He talks about a kind of war over education and winning that war.

Speaker 2: Education is our sword, you know, that’s our weapon. Our weapon is our is education. And we can do it. We can get it right.

Mary Harris: And that approach seems hyper aggressive in a way that like, oh, this is a new way of operating.

Speaker 3: Yeah. You know, I don’t think he’d be the first one to pick up on the, I guess, aggressive tone and one that often dismisses any sort of critique or concern from parents, from teachers, administrators, and, frankly, from the students themselves.

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Mary Harris: Can you lay out how Hillsdale has sort of embedded itself in state school curricula in Florida, but then also maybe other places as well?

Speaker 3: Yeah, there was actually.

Mary Harris: A bill.

Speaker 3: That gave Hillsdale essentially the authority or the ability to help write laws that impacted curricula in.

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Mary Harris: Florida. That’s a lot to make them a shadow legislator.

Speaker 3: Yeah. And in the reporting, we realized that at Jan 2019, they approved a law that would allow the college and a few other groups to help the state rework its civics standards. And we had a number of teachers and a number of educators reach out and kind of raise concerns about them and raise concerns about the infusion of these conservative ideas and an emphasis on Christian ideas and Christianity as a whole.

Mary Harris: After the break, how Hillsdale is using Florida as a kind of laboratory for its educational goals.

Mary Harris: After Summer started noticing all these connections between conservative Hillsdale College and Governor Ron DeSantis. She wanted to be as specific as possible about how those connections were impacting everyday Floridians. So she started thinking about all the ways the state was changing its approach to education. One thing the governor and his commissioner of education were prioritizing was textbook negotiations. They had said textbook publishers were infested with liberals. So when the state started rejecting math books earlier this year, Sommer filed a request to see what kinds of criteria reviewers were using. She got 6000 pages of documents.

Speaker 3: Yeah, that was that was an interesting couple of days. There was about I think it was 120, 125 math textbook reviewers from across the state. And we found that only three of those reviewers, you know, raised the red flag and said that there was issues within the textbook that violated state rule. And I will say the pragmatic topics that the state was referring to are topics of critical race theory and social emotional learning. But what we found is that three individuals found examples and just four math textbooks.

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Mary Harris: So who were the three people who were raising red flags about math textbooks in the first place?

Speaker 3: Well, that’s interesting because it does bring it back to Hillsdale. Two of them are affiliated with the college. One is a sophomore studying politics.

Mary Harris: Still in college?

Speaker 3: Yes. Or at least was still in college back in May when he published this. So I assume now is is a rising junior. But, yes, he was a sophomore, a student at the college when that happened. Another was a civics education specialist at the college. And then the third was a Florida parent. And she is part of the Indian River County chapters of Moms for Liberty, which is the group that is dedicated to parental rights in schools but is very much aligned with conservative politics in the state.

Mary Harris: And what are some of the objections they had to language in a math textbook, and how did it relate to any of these hot topics like critical race theory?

Speaker 3: Back to one of the individuals from from Hillsdale College. He provided a pretty specific example, I guess, and he said that the material could violate the state’s rule that prohibits ideas that argue racism is embedded in society. Because some of the examples talked about racial profiling in policing or the idea of discrimination in magnet school admissions.

Mary Harris: How much weight do their objections carry?

Speaker 3: Well, given that the state did reject them, it seems that their reviews were given more weight than reviewers who were math teachers. We also learned that there was a group of reviewers who.

Speaker 2: Were.

Speaker 3: Tasked with looking specifically for, quote, prohibited topics such as critical race theory. And we learned that those reviewers specifically were given more money or were paid more to do that job than the reviewers who were tasked with simply reviewing regular math questions and regular math prompts.

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Speaker 2: Well.

Speaker 3: We have yet to receive a response as to why there was a discrepancy between the payouts that the individuals received.

Mary Harris: Okay. So we have people from Hillsdale College is a small conservative Michigan institution weighing in on what kind of textbooks students should be looking at in Florida. You also chronicled how Florida has started up this new civics education program, which is deeply informed by curricula that have been developed at Hillsdale. And I know that teachers over the summer have been beginning to get some training. What have you learned from them?

Speaker 3: The issue that was raised was that there was this push or this overarching theme of teaching in a very strong Christian fundamentalist way. And this idea of shifting or a few of them went so far to say, whitewashing history.

Speaker 2: The Florida Department of Education is holding.

Mary Harris: A series of conferences statewide this summer to teach a new civics initiative championed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

Speaker 2: In one of the slides presented the day, we said it was a misconception that the Founding Fathers wanted a strict separation between church and state.

Speaker 3: This repetition throughout these sessions that Jesus Christ and the Bible have the greatest influence on the country’s foundation, and that was something that should be embedded throughout a public school education.

Speaker 2: Other slides illustrated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were against slavery. Without mentioning, they owned slaves.

Speaker 3: This seemed to the teachers as a fundamental shift in what was being emphasized and what should be kind of minimized.

Speaker 2: It was very unsettling. What they did was present a single perspective as the only one, the correct one. They cherry picked evidence.

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Mary Harris: I noticed something else in your reporting, which is a lot of the teachers who you spoke with after the civics training, they were veterans like they’d been doing this for a while and they seemed concerned about the teachers who hadn’t been doing this for a long time. And so for them, this kind of civics training would just be. The truth, like they wouldn’t have anything else to compare it to.

Speaker 3: Correct. There is a concern amongst veteran teachers. About how all of this will impact early career teachers, someone who is a veteran teacher, who has a good relationship with their principal, who is confident in their abilities, who’s confident in their protections with the union, might not change how they’re approaching what they teach. But on the flip side, you have a really great teachers who this is all they know and they might be a little more weary of kind of treading into that space of is this going to get me fired? Is this going to get me into a lawsuit if I upset a student or make them feel uncomfortable? And so I think.

Speaker 3: With the civics training. Yes, that definitely came up a couple of times of if this is just the new generation of teachers and this is what they’re told to teach. What does that mean for our students and the education our students get around civics and about the true history of this country? That idea and that concern expands to every topic.

Mary Harris: You know, in other states like Tennessee that have worked closely with Hillsdale College teachers, have gotten really angry about this conservative group messing with their curriculum, people outside of the state. Like audio just came out recently of the president of Hillsdale insulting teachers while sitting next to the governor of Tennessee. He said teachers were trained in some of the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country. And teachers basically rose up and they said, you need to sever ties with this place. And it’s a little questionable whether it’s actually going to happen. But it started a conversation. Do you get any sense? That there’s any similar. Movement or sentiment afoot in Florida.

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Speaker 3: You know, I don’t see that kind of movement happening yet, but I think we might get a better sense of what will happen. In the next couple of months as these. Bills or laws excuse me, start taking effect. I think there are teachers that are deeply concerned and are incredibly upset that this is the state of education in Florida. I think they are angry, but a lot of them, to my surprise, honestly, have said, you know, but my focus remains on my classroom and my focus remains on the students. And that’s where my energy is going to be.

Mary Harris: Sommer Brugal, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really grateful.

Speaker 3: Thank you for having me.

Mary Harris: Sommer Brugal is a K-through-12 education reporter over at the Miami Herald. Tomorrow on what next, we’ll Larkins goes to high school just outside Orlando. But don’t say Gay is making his senior year way more interesting.

Speaker 2: This is a peaceful demonstration to show the Florida legislature that what they’re doing does not represent us.

Speaker 4: I totally thought 50 people were going to walk out at first. Was. And 9 a.m. hit and 500 people walked out and.

Speaker 2: They were all chanting. We say they.

Mary Harris: And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Carmel Delshad, Mary Wilson and Madeline Ducharme. Madeline gets a ton of thanks for all of your hard work on this episode. It was Maddie who interviewed Anita, that teacher you heard at the top of the show. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. Ingo tracked me down on Twitter. See my vacation photos? I’m at Mary’s desk. All right. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.