Ron DeSantis’s next chapter in book bans backlash? Blame someone else

<span>Florida governor Ron DesSantis in Palm Beach on 29 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA</span>
Florida governor Ron DesSantis in Palm Beach on 29 February 2024.Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA

In the two years since Ron DeSantis signed legislation sparking a tidal wave of book-banning in Florida’s classrooms, the Republican governor has blamed the ensuing chaos on a succession of foils – including teachers, librarians, the news media and political opponents.

Now, another group has joined those in his crosshairs: school principals. A proposed new rule by an education standards committee led by a DeSantis loyalist seeks to impose penalties on administrators deemed to have obstructed the state’s view of what students should be reading.

The rule was pitched by Randy Kosec, head of the professional practices office that investigates educator misconduct, earlier this month after the governor requested officials to “fine-tune” the process by which books are challenged in schools.

It would introduce possible sanctions or other penalties to principals who prevent, or allow others to prevent, students’ access to unspecified “educational materials”.

DeSantis’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz, and a handpicked board of education will discuss the proposal’s merits next month, although critics have already made up their minds. They say the move to target administrators is an effort to blunt a growing backlash to Florida’s nation-leading crusade to remove books it considers inappropriate because of sexual or race-related content, and the latest finger-pointing by DeSantis for a mess of his own making.

The governor conceded last month that “bad actors”, such as the far-right Moms for Liberty group, had taken advantage of his parental rights in education act to file “frivolous challenges” that were swamping school districts.

“This is another scapegoating, but at the end of the day it’s an admission by this administration that they know there’s a problem,” said Katie Blankenship, Florida director of PEN America, which recorded 1,406 book ban incidents in the state in the 2022 school year, 40% of the national total.

“Book bans in our state have spiraled out of control and DeSantis and Diaz know it. Their actual job would be to fix the bill, but using this ‘it’s not our fault’ scapegoating, it’s not addressing the harm the law is doing.”

Blankenship and others believe DeSantis, whose extremist agenda failed to gain traction during his failed presidential campaign, has become sensitive to headlines pointing out the damaging effects of book removals, as well as his perceived hypocrisy.

Such headlines include the pulling of dictionaries and encyclopedias in January by the Escambia county school district, fearful their descriptions of “sexual conduct” violated the state law; and a requirement by a school in Miami for parental consent before students could engage with a Black author’s book.

Despite clear evidence to the contrary, DeSantis still insists book banning in Florida is “a hoax”. Yet he is supportive of restrictions moving through Florida’s legislature that would limit the number of challenges, or introduce a fee for those without children in the school system.

“Even his voters, Republicans, are not liking the fact that they’re seeing book after book pulled off the shelf, so now he’s looking at a way to rewind the tape and wipe his hands clean of a piece of legislation that he championed and pushed through,” said Florida US congressman Maxwell Frost, who introduced the Fight Banned Books Act to the House of Representatives in December.

“A lot of the damage has already been done, and this limit he’s proposing doesn’t do anything, it’s just lip service. The other thing is, if this is such a pressing issue, if pornographic books and poems are violating the minds of our children and running rampant throughout the state, why would you cap people’s ability to challenge them?”

Frost continued: “That seems completely against the whole foundation of their bill and shows that not only do they know it’s not popular, they also know that the premise of their argument is bullshit.”

With Florida already experiencing a shortage of almost 7,000 teachers, according to the Florida Education Association, the group questions the wisdom of going after principals too.

Andrew Spar, the association’s executive director, said the ongoing book-banning saga is making the situation even worse.

“The fact DeSantis is backtracking shows that the overwhelming majority of Floridians disagree with his antics, and that it’s strictly for political purposes because it’s not lost on me that he started backtracking after he bowed out of the presidential race,” he said.

“By the governor’s own admission, his endorsement and enabling of fringe-minority groups not representative of our state to challenge books has allowed for ‘bad actors’ that have created a state where fear takes the front seat.

“Our educators are extremely tired of it, and it’s why they’re continuing to walk out of the profession on a daily basis. We want to be able to do our jobs, we’re professionals. And then we’ve got all these hoops that we have to jump through.”

Parents’ representatives also criticized the rule that targets principals as a continuation of what they see as a quest to undermine the public school system.

“It’s vague, and it’s hard to not believe that’s the way it’s intended to be,” said Damaris Allen, executive director of the Tampa-based advocacy group Families for Strong Public Schools.

“That was brought up in the workshop, if a principal will be penalized if they remove a book that is deemed age appropriate, then what is age appropriate?

“I sat in all those committees as those laws were being passed, and person after person said ‘nobody knows what books you’re meaning to pull out here’. You go to the training, which says err on the side of caution, which means you’re going to have anticipatory censorship, pulling away books so that you don’t get in trouble.

“What’s hardest is it all distracts from the fact that we have been chronically underfunded, many of our districts are in spaces where they’re having to pass an additional millage or sales tax just to get their schools decently funded, and that ultimately harms kids.

“While we’re talking about these things, we’re not dealing with those issues. We have a mental health crisis with students, we haven’t fully processed what happened with the pandemic, and we’re not able to address those issues because we’re so busy constantly reviewing books.”

The Florida department of education did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for DeSantis, asked if the governor supported the rule to sanction principals, said: “We don’t answer hypothetical questions.”