Sue Legg: Conservatives working to shape civics education in Florida
Sue Legg looks behind some of the ongoing debates in Florida over civics education. She ties them to an old US disputes over state versus federal power as well as the separation of church and state.
The debate over civics education in Florida is the latest political power play rooted in this old dispute. The strategy is subtle. Political conservatives are using money and political connections to alter Florida’s civics education.
Behind the scenes is Hillsdale College, a religious college in Michigan that is defining what it means to be a patriotic citizen. The concept is akin to the idea of promoting “civil religion” that evolved from the Federalist Party’s celebration of patriotic ideas and events to build its base of support.
Hillsdale College was founded in 1844. Facing scandal and near collapse in 1999, a new president saw an opportunity to promote its conservative Federalist ideology as a form of super patriotism and rebuild the school. It now has an endowment of more than $800 million. Its 1776 Curriculum is used in its classical charter schools. (Read a critique online at bit.ly/hillsdalecollegeseries)
Supporters of the college include national and Florida-based politicians. Betsy DeVos, former U.S. secretary of education and Ginnie Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, are examples.
In Florida, they include Erika Donalds, wife of U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, who led the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative alternative school board association. She helped found the Florida charter schools sponsored by Hillsdale College. Florida politicians such as Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran are identified with these charters. It is a close-knit group with a history.
Erika Donalds sponsored Amendment 8 to the Florida Constitution in 2018. The amendment was thrown out by the courts, but its agenda to limit school boards’ authority, ban books and require its version of civic literacy remain
DeSantis has coopted it as he builds his candidacy for president. His legislative agenda prohibits teaching subjects that make students uncomfortable about past events (HB 7). HB 1467 bans controversial topics in textbooks. The new civics curriculum, with its particular set of values, will take effect in 2024.