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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

What the sides are saying about Florida's higher education bills targeting DEI

On Monday, May 15, 2023; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed three higher ed bills at New College of Florida.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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AP
On Monday, May 15, 2023; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed three higher ed bills at New College of Florida.

Controversy over how education is taught in Florida's classrooms continues to grow.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed two higher education bills this week. The measures defund some diversity equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in public colleges and universities, restrict classroom topics, and govern campus speaker events.

During the bill signing ceremony at New College of Florida, DeSantis said the changes will let schools focus on academics.

“What this does is reorient our universities back to their traditional mission," said DeSantis. "Part of that traditional mission is to treat people as individual, not to try and divvy them up based on any type of superficial characteristics.”

But, House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D-Hillsborough) thinks the new laws will hurt, not help, schools.

“This attack on higher education is hurting Florida’s brand," said Driskell. "We have a very good higher education system with lower cost than many other states, but these radical changes risk throwing our colleges and universities into chaos.”

'Eliminating someone’s speech...'

HB 931 and SB 266 restrict what can be taught in college and university classrooms—barring topics such as critical race theory and specifying that general education classes can’t “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics.”

A move that Representative Anna Eskamani (D-Orange) says will violate student’s first amendment.

“We do not help increase freedom of speech by eliminating someone’s speech, bottom line and I would argue that the political orthodoxy comes from the fact that you are allowing the board of governors, a political body, to determine what is distortion of history," said Eskamani.

'No more loyalty oaths?'

The bills prohibit public institutions from forcing students or staff members to support a specific partisan, political, or ideological set of beliefs; something the governor calls "political loyalty oaths."

“They call them diversity statements but it’s really requiring you to sign up to support an ideological agenda that you might not be supportive of," said DeSantis. "What we have been seeing across the country, schools requiring professors to commit to DEI and CRT theories before they are allowed to be hired and that’s not going to fly in Florida.”

The new laws also require all campuses to have offices run by state education officials to ensure speakers at events have quote “multiple, divergent and opposing” viewpoints.

Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson (D-Marion) spoke out against that provision during a heated debate as the bill came up on the House floor.

“You know, I support post-secondary intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity, but this is not what this is," said Hinson. "I’ve said to you before, I’m having trouble hearing what you say because I see what you do. This bill seeks to further divide. We don’t need an office for public policy events for each university. Our universities already have students’ groups that put on events of differing viewpoints.”

The measures have been heavily criticized as an extension of last year’s “Stop Woke Act” and “Don’t Say Gay” laws as part of the governor’s effort to battle what he calls a “woke ideology” in the state’s public schools.

Both laws will take effect July 1.

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Adrian Andrews