Is DeSantis behind the Curve on Protest Civics?

Florida governor Ron DeSantis is rightly seen as a conservative politician with a flair for leadership and a bright future. DeSantis has been out in front on a wide variety of issues; education very much included. DeSantis recently moved against critical race theory (CRT) in Florida’s schools, for example, and this week he signed bills into law that would, among other things, protect campus free speech and create a K–12 curriculum that contrasts the blessings of liberty with the record of totalitarian regimes. DeSantis deserves praise for all this, but there may be a fly in the ointment.

DeSantis and education officials in Florida have so far been silent on the dangers of protest civics — after-school political protests and demonstrations (invariably for leftist causes), rewarded with course credit. This is important because conspicuously missing from the education bills DeSantis signed earlier this week was S.B. 146, a “civic literacy education” bill that would provide Florida high-school students with college credit for leftist political protests. S.B. 146 would even allow CRT to creep back into Florida’s education system, despite the official ban. A number of the education-focused parent groups now active across Florida have called on DeSantis to veto S.B. 146. I’ve made the case for a veto of S.B. 146 as well. What the governor will do is far from clear, however. If DeSantis does nothing, S.B. 146 will become law without his signature after June 29. Sadly, that is a real possibility.

On substance, a veto is a no-brainer. S.B. 146 will politicize K–12 in Florida, advance leftist indoctrination, and even provide an opening for CRT. These are ideas and practices that DeSantis has pledged to oppose. The challenge for DeSantis, however, is that S.B. 146 passed the legislature unanimously. That happened because, like many bills that authorize action civics, its real implications were anything but obvious. It took some digging into the grubby details of S.B. 146 after it had already been approved by the legislature to discover that this was a leftist protest-civics bill in disguise. So, if DeSantis vetoes S.B. 146, he’ll need to offer a good explanation.

The way to do that is to focus on the big picture. DeSantis needs to squarely take on the issue of “action civics,” explaining why it is wrong for schools to push students into after-school political protests and lobbying. He needs to highlight the need for public education to respect all viewpoints by avoiding indoctrination and political pressure. (I’ve made that case on the protest-civics issue here.) Then he needs to explain that S.B. 146 leaves an opening for politicized education and that no such legislation should be approved until Florida has enacted comprehensive protections against protest civics. DeSantis can then promise to support such legislation in 2022. Short of boldly tackling the issue in this manner, it will be tough for DeSantis to justify a veto.

If DeSantis allows S.B. 146 to become law, however, it will put him behind the curve on protest civics, rather than his usual place out in front. Just last week, Governor Abbott of Texas signed the first comprehensive state ban on protest civics into law. The Georgia State Board of Education recently announced a similar ban on protest civics, a prelude to likely legislation on the subject in 2022. South Dakota legislators have signaled an intention to bar protest civics in 2022. Ohio is also considering a bill that would block protest civics (as well as CRT), and the prospects of passage are good. Several other states are seriously considering moves against protest civics next session.

If DeSantis allows S.B. 146 to become law, we may see stories next year on the abuses of protest civics in Florida at a moment when many other states will be moving to block the practice. And the stories about state-sponsored political protests that may soon be coming to Florida will be playing out as the result of a law whose consequences were foretold. This would not be a good look for someone used to being at the forefront of conservative education policy nationally.

Is DeSantis behind the curve on protest civics? We’ll know by June 29.