By Mimi Nguyen Ly
High school students in Florida will be required to learn about “the evils of communism” under one of three bills Gov. Ron DeSantis signed on Tuesday.
DeSantis signed the bills at a news conference at Three Oaks Middle School in Fort Myers. Two of the bills—HB 5 and SB 1108—focus on civics education, and the third—HB 233—requires freedom of expression at state colleges and universities.
Specifically, HB 5 requires the Florida Department of Education to develop an integrated K-12 civic education curriculum that includes teaching students about citizens’ shared rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The measure also adds a requirement for public high schools to “include a comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.”
In short, high schools must provide “instruction on the evils of communism and totalitarian ideology,” DeSantis said, noting that there are Florida residents who have escaped totalitarian regimes and communist dictatorships, such as from Cuba and Vietnam, to live in America.
“We want all students to understand the difference,” he said. “Why would somebody flee across shark-infested waters … why would people leave these countries and risk their lives to be able to come here? It’s important that students understand that.”
HB 5 will also provide a “Portraits in Patriotism” library with resources that include personal stories of “real patriots who came to this country after seeing the horrors of these communist regimes,” DeSantis said.
The Republican governor also signed SB 1108, which requires state college and university students to undergo both a civic literacy course and a civic literacy assessment in order to graduate. Prior to this bill, students were only required to do one—either the course or the assessment.
High school students will also be required to take a civic literacy assessment. If they pass the test, they will be exempted from taking a civics test in college or university.
The bill also expands a “character development curriculum” for high school juniors and seniors to include instructions on how to register to vote.
In a statement, DeSantis said he was proud to sign the bills to prioritize civics education.
“The sad reality is that only two in five Americans can correctly name the three branches of government, and more than a third of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” he said. “It is abundantly clear that we need to do a much better job of educating our students in civics to prepare them for the rest of their lives.”
The third bill DeSantis signed, HB 233, seeks to protect “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” in postsecondary education.
It requires state colleges and universities to carry out annual assessments on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at these institutions. The bill defines “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” as “the exposure of students to, and the encouragement of students’ exploration of, a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”
The new law will also prohibit postsecondary schools from limiting students and staff members from accessing or observing “ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
“We obviously want our universities to be focused on critical thinking, academic rigor,” DeSantis told the press conference. “We do not want them as basically hotbeds for stale ideology—that’s not worth tax dollars, and that’s not something we’re going to be supporting going forward.”
He noted, “It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to these sorts of ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is really these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed. We don’t want that in Florida. You need to have a true contest of ideas.”
“Students should not be shielded from ideas, and we want robust First Amendment speech on our college and university campuses.”
The trio of bills are the latest efforts by DeSantis’s administration focused on education in Florida.
In 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order that involved completely eliminating Common Core in Florida, a set of education standards for reading, writing, and maths in the majority of states since 2010.
The same order directed Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to develop recommendations for the state legislature, including ideas to improve testing, and to “identify ways to really make civics education a priority in Florida,” DeSantis said back in 2019.
More recently, the Floridian governor supported the Florida Board of Education’s decision to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.