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Florida Guv’s School Crackdown Is a Red Scare Throwback

·5 min read
Joe Raedle/Getty
Joe Raedle/Getty

In 1954, the year after Florida adopted a hardline anti-communist curriculum, feverish stories hit a northeast Florida newspaper. “School Text Praises Communist Fronts,” read one Putnam Sun headline.

What, exactly, were those secret communist messages? A trio of concerned mothers later elaborated to another Florida paper: the textbook American Problems Today painted a favorable picture of the American Civil Liberties Union, and “advocated FEPC [the Fair Employment Practice Committee] and other forms of integration.” A state senator claimed that the textbook taught principles “opposite” to those in the Constitution, and the northeastern Florida teacher who introduced the book to his class was eventually fired.

Years passed. The Red Scare cooled. Florida updated its curriculum for the times. But now those classroom codes are being revised again, with an eerie throwback to the state’s most hardcore Cold War-era education panic.

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In recent weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law a series of education edicts. Public school curricula will now teach the “evils” of communism. Schools are prohibited from teaching certain topics on race, including that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems.” And a new higher-education law—written as ideologically neutral but promoted by lawmakers who call colleges “socialism factories”—allows for budget cuts to colleges based on student and faculty surveys about “viewpoint diversity.”

The laws’ critics say they’re part of a well precedented, anti-left campaign in the state’s education system.

Dr. Robert Dahlgren, a SUNY Fredonia professor who has written at length about the Red Scare’s effect on Florida teachers, said some of the new laws, particularly those about race, seek to stifle discussion about America’s past.

“I think that’s the deeper level that these laws are trying to address, as they did back in the ’50s,” Dahlgren told The Daily Beast. “They shut down any kind of expression of critical examination of our history.”

Florida’s own history, like much of America’s, is riddled with none-too-proud moments. Although it is now forbidden for Florida’s schools to teach about racism in the legal system, many of those same Florida schools were slow to desegregate, even after 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation to be unconstitutional.

And in 2021 as in 1954, critics on the right are quick to conflate racial-justice programs with communism.

As the pandemic eases and school boards resume in-person meetings across the country, many of the gatherings have become hotbeds for anxieties about “critical race theory.” The theory, a method of examining inequality in the legal system, is typically the stuff of college and graduate courses—it’s almost never actually taught to kids.

Nevertheless, following sustained messaging from Fox News and a set of brand-new conservative think tanks, schools have been accused of teaching critical race theory, and those critics have also accused the theory, baselessly, of being “Marxist” or communist.

Short on actual evidence of the theory being propagated in K-12 schools, its critics have pointed to schools’ anti-racism efforts, or history lessons that highlight racism in America’s past. One of Florida’s new rules, which on its face bans critical race theory, actually prohibits schools from teaching about racism in America’s foundations, critics say.

Andrew Spar, head of the Florida Education Association, previously denounced Florida’s anti-CRT law. “Students deserve the best education we can provide, and that means giving them a true picture of their world and our shared history as Americans. Hiding facts doesn’t change them,” he told NBC.

“If giving students a good education is the goal, the rule could be amended to say in part: ‘Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow,’” he added.

Florida schools will, however, teach “first-person accounts of victims of other nations’ governing philosophies who can compare those philosophies with those of the United States,” under a new law signed this week. DeSantis specifically cited communism as an ideology highlighted under the new program.

“Why would somebody flee across shark-infested waters, say leaving from Cuba, to come to southern Florida? Why would somebody leave a place like Vietnam? Why would people leave these countries and risk their life to be able to come here?” DeSantis said. “It’s important that students understand that.”

But whether it’s the right’s latest freakout over “critical race theory” or the revival of yesteryear’s “communism” craze, campaigns against boogeymen like these are often stalking-horses for other grievances, Dahlgren explained.

“This was thought to be winning politics at a time when Florida was being challenged by the Civil Rights movement,” Dahlgren said of Florida’s mid-’50s anti-communist sentiment, which was hurled at teachers who promoted pro-integration textbooks. “It’s interesting that today, again, we have this conflation between critical race theory, in the same way that the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and communism were being conflated.”

In the 1950s, much as a national network of think tanks are currently lobbying against critical race theory in schools, Florida’s anti-communist school curriculums were developed in part by right-leaning groups, “very much what we would call today an AstroTurf phenomenon,” Dahlgren noted.

Even more remarkably, Florida’s renewed stance against both ostensible communism and critical race theory in schools comes with a new state policy of surveying college students and faculty for their opinions on their schools’ ideological makeup.

“I think that having intellectual diversity is something that is very, very important,” DeSantis previously said of the initiative.

But although the law’s text does not target any particular ideology, some of its advocates in the state legislature were clear on their intent to wield it against left-leaning colleges, long a source of enmity among American conservatives. One lawmaker went so far as to call the schools “socialism factories,” and DeSantis accused schools of “indoctrinating” students.

Schools found lacking might face budget cuts, DeSantis suggested.

“That’s not worth tax dollars and that’s not something that we’re going to be supporting moving forward,” he said at a press conference.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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