DeSantis 'parental rights' push leads to pulled civil rights film, ousted principal

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s restrictive education policies and advocacy for “parental rights” have resulted in multiple books being banned from public schools. But the controversy over what’s deemed appropriate for students hasn’t been limited to literature.

This month, there has been fallout when a film about civil rights was pulled and a principal was forced out of her job over the issue of nudity in a piece of classical art. Both occurred after complaints from parents, emboldened by state laws requiring “curriculum transparency” from schools.

The Republican governor has been at the forefront of a nationwide right-wing push to restrict what is taught in schools, generally focusing on removing books that discuss race, sexuality or gender that are often written by nonwhite or LGBTQ authors.

Earlier this year, DeSantis forced changes to an AP African American studies course after rejecting the initial curriculum. He has signed bills banning the teaching of critical race theory, an academic study of systemic racism in the country. He is also looking to ban the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity through high school graduation, an expansion of last year’s "Don’t Say Gay" bill, which banned the teaching of those subjects from kindergarten through third grade.

Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community attend a rally in Miami Beach, Fla., on March 13, 2022
Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community at a rally in Miami Beach, Fla., in March 2022. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Because of a law passed last year that DeSantis said requires transparency in curriculum and library options, school districts have pulled hundreds of books from the shelves in order to review them to make sure they don’t violate any of the governor’s new education policies. The book bans have included “The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. After 20 books by author Jodi Picoult were pulled in Martin County, she responded in a Daily Beast op-ed.

“The banned books on these lists are not salacious or revolutionary,” Picoult wrote. “What children are actually being exposed to are lives different from their own, and mindsets different from their own — which creates compassion and empathy. In other cases, children are being exposed to ideas and mindsets exactly like their own, which provides representation and validity and a sense of belonging. We know categorically that kids who feel marginalized and who read books with characters like themselves wind up feeling less marginalized.”

The legislation aims to “preserve the rights of parents to make decisions about what materials their children are exposed to in school,” according to a press release from DeSantis’s office.

In a floor speech in the House last Thursday, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., highlighted some of the books being banned, including Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” which covers the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel about a right-wing misogynistic regime. Raskin contrasted the Republican claims of keeping children safe via book bans with the party's lack of action on guns, which is now the leading cause of death for those ages 1 to 18.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testifies before the Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testifies before the House Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee on Feb. 9. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“We need more politicians reading in America and fewer politicians trying to censor books in America,” Raskin said.

DeSantis called the charges of book bans a “hoax” earlier this month, saying the accusation “reveals that some are attempting to use our schools for indoctrination. In Florida, pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into our classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students violate our state education standards. Florida is the education state, and that means providing students with a quality education free from sexualization and harmful materials that are not age appropriate.”

DeSantis, a former congressman first elected governor in 2018, has not formally announced that he is running for the presidency, but many Republicans have pushed him as the top alternative to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 nomination. While DeSantis’s policies helped him win an easy reelection in November and have earned him praise from conservative pundits, polling has shown the war on education isn’t popular among the general public.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, March 25. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted earlier this month showed 36% support for requiring public school books to be reviewed for content “the government deems inappropriate,” versus 44% opposition. A Wall Street Journal/NORC poll found that 61% of respondents were more concerned that “some schools may ban books and censor topics that are educationally important” versus 36% who were more concerned that “some schools may teach books and topics that some students or their parents feel are inappropriate or offensive.” Overall, DeSantis has begun to lag further behind Trump in polling for next year’s presidential primary.

This month, the push to affirm the power of individual parents to drive curriculum in the state resulted in two incidents.

'Ruby Bridges' film pulled

U.S. Marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, November 1960
U.S. marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. (AP)

The Tampa Bay Times reported Monday that Pinellas County had pulled "Ruby Bridges," a film about a 6-year-old who integrated New Orleans public schools in the 1960s, after a complaint from the mother of a second grader. The 1998 Disney film, which had been a part of the Black History Month curriculum, is now being reviewed after the parent, Emily Conklin, said it “might result in students learning that white people hate Black people,” citing the use of racial slurs and scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered the school. (In real life and in the film, she was escorted by federal marshals.)

No time has been set to formally review the film and decide if it is allowed to be shown in schools.

Many from historically marginalized communities are asking whether this so-called integrated education system in Pinellas County can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably,” wrote Ric Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, in an open letter.

Principal forced out over Michelangelo statue

A reproduction of Michelangelo's David statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
A reproduction of Michelangelo's David statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

The Tallahassee Democrat reported last week that the principal of a public charter school, Tallahassee Classical School, had submitted her resignation over complaints from parents that sixth graders were shown images of Michelangelo’s famous statue David in art class. After complaints from three parents because their children had seen the sculpture of a nude man, including one parent who called it “pornographic,” Hope Carrasquilla was forced out.

Carrasquilla told HuffPost that normally parents are notified about the viewing of classical artwork but that the letter didn’t go out this time due to “a series of miscommunications.”

Explaining his decision in an interview with Slate last week, the school board chairman, Barney Bishop III, said, “98 percent of the parents didn’t have a problem with [the lesson], but that doesn’t matter, because we didn’t follow a practice,” adding that “the rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids.”

Bishop said he told Carrasquilla she could resign or he would have the board vote to terminate her without cause. While this was not tied directly to any of the new Florida laws, Bishop said the move was in accordance with the governor’s vision.

“Parents are the ones who are going to drive the education system here in Florida,” he said in the interview. “The governor said that, and we’re with the governor. Parents choose this school because they want a certain kind of education. We’re not gonna have courses from the College Board. We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT crap.”

The Florida Department of Education told Yahoo News that the decision was not related to any state law.

"The Statue of David has artistic and historical value," Alex Lanfranconi, the department's director of communications, said in a statement. "Florida encourages instruction on the classics and classical art, and would not prohibit its use in instruction. The matter at Tallahassee Classical School is between the school and an employee, and is not the effect of state rule or law."

Over the weekend, the mayor of Florence, Italy, invited Carrasquilla to visit his city, where the statue is on display, saying he wanted to "give her recognition on behalf of the city.”

"Art is civilization, and whoever teaches it deserves respect,” Dario Nardella wrote (in Italian) in a tweet.

Carrasquilla said in a statement that Bishop “was more concerned about litigation and appeasing a small minority of parents, rather than trusting my expertise as an educator for more than 25 years.” Tallahassee Classical School teaches a curriculum based on the work of Hillsdale College, a conservative institution in Michigan that has lesson plans being used across the country.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Florida Department of Education.