Opinion | In a deep red Florida county, a student-teacher revolt puts the right to shame

By now, it’s obvious that the reactionary culture warriors who want to reshape American education are inspiring a serious liberal countermobilization in response. Surprisingly, this backlash against the backlash is gaining momentum in some of the redder parts of the country.

A raucous school board meeting in Hernando County, Florida, on Tuesday night captured the amazingness of this new phenomenon. At the scene, the teachers pointedly stated that attacks from the right are driving them to resign, even as parents and students vigorously stood up on their behalf, demanding an end to the hysteria.

“I have never seen such fear in my colleagues as in the last two months,” social studies professor Victoria Hunt told the board.

The whole thing really put culture war mongers to shame. It’s not that they see it that way; as the meeting also showed, scenes like this, with the utmost anger, fear, tension and suspicion surging between parents and educators, are precisely the result they want.

This county, north of Tampa, voted for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 by a 41-point margin. It is where Fifth grade teacher Jenna Barbee recently angered local enforcers of right-wing orthodoxy by showing her class “Weird World.” a Disney movie with an openly gay character. The Florida Department of Education is investigating whether DeSantis violated the “don’t say gay” law that restricts classroom discussion of sex and gender.

Barbee quits, but she’s not the only one. At Tuesday’s meeting, local teacher Daniel Scott gave an emotional speech, declaring that the climate of anger is driving him away from the profession.

“I feel like I can no longer adequately provide a safe environment for my students,” Scott said, denouncing the “draconian working conditions that are causing many like me to abandon this honorable career.”

Meanwhile, Alyssa Marano, a resigned math teacher, pushed back on the oft-heard accusation of LGBTQ indoctrination of students. “No one is teaching their children to be gay,” she told the room. “Sometimes they are just gay. I have math to teach. I literally don’t have time to teach your kids to be gay.”

Nearly 50 teachers are reportedly planning to resign in this school district. Lisa Masserio, president of the Hernando County Teachers Union, says state laws and directives that restrict educators are a key reason. She told us: “There is increased pressure and scrutiny in an already difficult job.”

At the meeting, right-wing parents and a minority of the school board amplified the usual attacks: classroom pornography, indoctrination, awakening. Looking at them, it was impossible to avoid the feeling that they were enjoying every second of the tumult they had unleashed.

At the gathering, Shannon Rodriguez, a darling of the right-wing freedom moms who led the attack on the Disney movie episode, robotically repeated phrases like “awakened ideologies” and “awakened agenda,” not even the least bit perturbed. out of any sense of obligation. to define its meaning. She proudly displayed her solidarity with the Bud Light and Disney boycotts as a badge of anti-awakening heroism. Another conservative dad practically yelled, “You’ve woken up all the alpha male blood in this country!”

But the real story of the night was the answer. Time and again, parents and students vigorously defended the teachers. They consider the attacks of the right, the censorship of educators and the theft of books as the real threats to education.

“War on awakening?” said a student pointedly. “More like a war for the future of your children.”

“It is my classmates and I who are feeling the effects of this,” said a second student. A third said that removing books from classrooms is what really “indoctrinates students.”

Things like this are happening everywhere. As New York’s Sarah Jones Magazine reports, liberal parents in states as far flung as New York, North Carolina and Montana are organizing local groups, lobbying school boards and running for office to challenge the takeover of education. by the right.

Democratic politicians are stepping up. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker will soon sign a bill requiring schools and libraries to adopt a ban on politically motivated book checkouts. to qualify for state funding.

We have also learned that nine Democratic governors representing nearly 9 million students have sent a letter to major textbook companies decrying “the negative impact that censorship and book bans have on this nation’s students.” The letter indicates that governors are watching closely to see if attacks on businesses by right-wing governors like DeSantis are producing books that are “inappropriately censored.”

Phil Murphy, governor of New Jersey and head of the Democratic Governors Association, says these governors will model an alternative to right-wing censorship in the future.

“There is a wide path available for Democratic governors to recapture the mantle of fundamental American values: freedom, patriotism, rights,” Murphy told us. Murphy recently responded to DeSantis’s restrictions on an Advanced Placement course on African American studies by expanding the number of such classes in his state.

Just as a car accident draws attention, the ugliness of the right-wing culture war often paralyzes the media. But another story is striking: ordinary parents everywhere and their elected representatives are fighting back and declaring that they’ve had enough.