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TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday escalated his ongoing crusade against "wokeness" and "elites" by pushing a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts if they teach "critical race theory" in classrooms.
The state's Republican governor — who gained a national following amid his battles over Covid restrictions — also wants the GOP-controlled Legislature to help employees at private corporations that are subjected to what he called "harassment" by being forced to undergo sensitivity and racial awareness training.
DeSantis announced the moves under a new “Stop WOKE Act” at a press conference held near The Villages, a bulwark of Republican support in central Florida. The event functioned more as a de facto campaign rally as a crowd of onlookers applauded loudly and waved signs handed out to them ahead of the event as DeSantis bashed liberal cities and states, and companies like Bank of America and Verizon, over their policies.
“Nobody wants this crap,” DeSantis told the crowd.
“This is an elite-driven phenomenon being driven by bureaucratic elites, elites in universities and elites in corporate America. And they’re trying to shove it down the throats of the American people. You’re not doing that in the state of Florida,” he said.
A key piece of the DeSantis proposal would give parents the power to sue local school districts that teach lessons rooted in critical race theory. This part, which also allows parents to collect attorney fees, is similar to the bounties permitted under Texas’ controversial abortion law. Under that law, ordinary citizens can sue those who provide abortions and collect attorney fees.
The governor’s proposed measure is his latest move to appeal to conservatives ahead of his 2022 reelection and possible 2024 White House bid. DeSantis in the past has pushed legislation that prevents schools and businesses from mandating Covid-related mandates like masking and vaccines as well as culture war issues like punishing Big Tech and cracking down on demonstrations over racial justice and police brutality.
Critical race theory was a hot-button issue across the country and in Florida earlier this year when the state’s Board of Education passed a rule preventing teachers from going “rogue” in the classroom by leading lessons that include pieces of the subject. According to the rule, critical race theory and the 1619 Project on race from The New York Times are examples of theories that “distort historical events.”
Critical race theory is an analytical framework originally developed by legal scholars examining how race and racism have become ingrained in American law and institutions since slavery and Jim Crow. Many conservatives began using critical race theory as shorthand for a broader critique of how race and social issues are being taught in the K-12 education system. Most public school officials across the country say they do not teach the theory, even in districts where lawmakers are seeking to ban it.
DeSantis, along with state Republicans and some parents, claim that lessons rooted in critical race theory are still being taught in Florida schools despite the state prohibition. Speakers at the DeSantis event from the conservative parent activist group Moms for Liberty said that “American history is being replaced by critical race theory” and described the protests after the police killing of George Floyd as “race wars.”
The legislation sought by DeSantis essentially calls upon citizens to enforce the state ban on critical race theory teachings. School districts would be more afraid of what lawyers could uncover in discovery than any fines from the state Department of Education, according to DeSantis.
“By us protecting against CRT in this ‘Stop WOKE Act,’ we’re going to be making sure that time in school is being spent learning and not just being targets of indoctrination,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis is also targeting what he called “corporate-sanctioned racism” through critical race theory training in companies. The Republican governor claimed companies like Verizon teach employees that America is fundamentally racist and alleged that a Google training taught that all Americans were raised to be racist.
“How is it not a hostile work environment to be attacking people based on their race, or telling them that they are privileged or that they’re part of oppressive systems, when all they’re doing is showing up to work and trying to earn a living?” DeSantis said.
Democratic lawmakers denounced the DeSantis proposal on Wednesday, claiming it was an act of “foolishness.”
State Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens) said it was “baffling” that Republicans claim critical race theory is dividing the nation when “they led a whole insurrection” on Jan. 6.
“I refuse to sit and watch people who haven’t had a lived experience in my skin to use us as their political scapegoat,” Jones wrote on Twitter.
Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, also came out against DeSantis’ WOKE proposal.
“Teachers are trained and experienced in educating children and have a duty to prepare their students to be successful contributors to society,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a statement. “Teachers should have the freedom to teach honest, complete facts about historical events like slavery and civil rights without being censored by politicians.”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.