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DeSantis Signs Law Banning Diversity Programs at Public Colleges in Florida

“This is a continuation of a national agenda to whitewash history,” said State Sen. Shevrin Jones.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs three education bills on the campus of New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida, on May 15, 2023.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has signed legislation into law that will defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Florida’s public colleges and allow the state to remove programs, majors and minors that teach “identity politics” or critical race theory.

“[These laws are] part of a coordinated attack by partisan politicians on our right to learn about systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege in higher education,” said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.

The ACLU has noted that this legislation will prohibit public colleges in the state from spending funds on activities, speakers, events and clubs that promote diversity and inclusion. The vague language of the law may also endanger historically Black sororities and fraternities, as well as veterans’ services and student religious groups.

“It serves only to undermine progress toward racial justice by removing important support for students of color and erasing their heritage from campuses and classrooms. This law will ultimately lead to increased racial bias,” said Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

Governor DeSantis signed the bills — SB 266 and HB 931 — at the New College of Florida, a liberal arts school where he overhauled the board of trustees after accusing the school’s leadership of overemphasizing DEI, critical race theory and “gender ideology.” Since the overhaul, New College of Florida trustees have denied tenure to at least five professors in an unprecedented move, and voted to abolish DEI programs at the school.

“The location of the bill’s signing is also not lost on anyone,” said Jerry Edwards, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida. “In the past year, Gov. DeSantis and the state legislature have spent millions of dollars to distort New College into an institution that undermines academic freedom … The changes implemented at the behest of the governor at New College are a cautionary tale, not a success story.”

The signing of SB 266 and HB 931 into law signals to academic freedom advocates that DeSantis plans to “build on the state’s already right-wing approach to primary education,” as Eleanor J. Bader wrote for Truthout last month.

Higher education workers have been raising the alarm about DeSantis’s attacks on academic freedom for months. His administration has instituted a “Don’t Say Gay” law banning discussion on gender and sexuality in K-3 classrooms and is currently moving to expand the ban through grade 12. While the proposal has not yet been passed, at least one teacher is already under investigation for showing fifth graders a Disney movie featuring a gay character.

DeSantis’s administration has also made headlines for rejecting an Advanced Placement (AP) Black studies course and for banning “critical race theory” — moves that racial justice and education advocates have condemned as “proto-fascism.

“This is a continuation of a national agenda to whitewash history, all because we don’t want white children to feel uncomfortable about true Black history?” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D).

DeSantis’s attacks on education have also led the Florida Department of Education to reject 35 percent of social studies textbooks that were submitted for classroom use. The department also removed references to the police murder of George Floyd and the Movement for Black Lives from textbooks, and made edits to sections of books that referenced the Holocaust.

“Governor DeSantis’s signing of SB 266 into law today has deeply troubling implications for the future of higher education in Florida. DEI initiatives and activities make the state’s college campuses more productive, welcoming, and equitable,” said Charles McLaurin, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. “By targeting them, Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have put students and educators of color at a stark disservice in accessing education.”

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