TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Republicans on Monday advanced two key initiatives of Gov. Ron DeSantis as he prepares for an expected presidential run — banning gender affirming care for minors and eliminating diversity programs in colleges.
The proposals have cleared separate committees but must still win approval from the full House and Senate chambers.
DeSantis is pursing an aggressive conservative agenda on race, gender and education ahead of his expected candidacy, continuing a stance that has made him one of the most popular Republicans in the country.
The Republican supermajority in the statehouse is set to rubber stamp virtually all DeSantis' priorities during this year’s legislative session, giving the governor a platform of policy wins that could prove popular during a GOP primary.
The governor has been a leading critic of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in colleges, known as DEI, as well as Critical Race Theory, which is a way of thinking about American history through the lens of racism.
Ahead of Monday's committee vote, DeSantis held a roundtable discussion to criticize diversity programs as racially divisive and discriminatory. He has frequently targeted the programs in criticism of what he calls “woke” ideology in education.
“In Florida, we are not going to back down to the woke mob, and we will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country,” DeSantis said. “Florida students will receive an education, not a political indoctrination.”
The proposal would bar colleges from using state or federal funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs. It would prevent schools from having course curricula involving Critical Race Theory or so-called radical feminist theory, radical gender theory, queer theory, critical social justice or intersectionality.
In addition, universities would be able to conduct post-tenure reviews of faculty at any time for cause, in addition to a required review every five years.
Critics said the bill would disadvantage college students when they seek employment after graduation, could endanger accreditation of Florida courses and would stifle academic freedom on campuses.
“It’s not the responsibility of the state to define or dictate what we can or cannot learn. That is our choice, especially as adults within higher ed institutions,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat. “Why are we scared of these topics? Why do we not want adults like me in public universities who choose to learn about these theories to have an opportunity to learn about it, to question it, to debate it?”
Scholars developed Critical Race Theory during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what scholars viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The theory centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
Last year the governor signed legislation dubbed the Stop WOKE Act that restricts certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses. The law bars instruction that says members of one race are inherently racist or should feel guilt for past actions committed by others of the same race, among other things.
Dozens of transgender people, parents with transgender children and their supporters gathered in a Senate committee room to speak against the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors.
Opponents said it would lead to higher suicide rates, depression and anxiety and would cause far more harm than good.
Democratic lawmakers said their Republican colleagues are backing government intervention in private conversations families have with their doctors and stripping those families of their rights to care for their children.
Democratic Sen. Tracie Davis addressed her remarks to the people who testified against the bill.
“What we've done today with this legislation is vilify who you are," Davis said. “There are children out there who believe they are better off dead because of the lack of support, and all you said today is say, 'Love me as I am.'”
Republican Sen. Clay Yarborough said his bill is about protecting children, and told opponents he respects them.
“Every person was created with extraordinary worth, incredible value and a unique purpose from the time they were created. You can't change that," Yarborough said. “We need to let kids be kids, and our laws need to set appropriate boundaries that respect the rights and responsibilities of parents while protecting children.”