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In a deep red Florida county, a student-teacher revolt shames the right

Greg Sargent, Paul Waldman, June 1, 2023 at 6:30 a.m. EDT

By now, it’s obvious that the reactionary culture warriors who want to reshape American education are inspiring a serious liberal counter-mobilization in response. Remarkably, this backlash to the backlash is gaining momentum in some of the reddest parts of the country.

A raucous school board meeting in Hernando County, Fla., on Tuesday night captured what’s striking about this new phenomenon. The scene featured teachers pointedly declaring that right-wing attacks are driving them to quit, even as parents and students forcefully stood up on their behalf, demanding a halt to the hysteria.

“I have never seen such fear from my colleagues as I have seen in the last two months,” social studies teacher Victoria Hunt told the board.

The whole affair really put the culture-war-mongers to shame. Not that they’ll see it that way; as the meeting also showed, scenes like this — with maximum rage, fear, tension and suspicion surging between parents and educators — are precisely the outcome they want.

This county, north of Tampa, voted for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 by a 41-point margin. It’s wherefifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee recently enraged local enforcers of right-wing orthodoxy by showing her class “Strange World,”a Disney movie with an openly gay character. The Florida Department of Education is investigating whether she violated DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” law restricting classroom discussion of sex and gender.

Barbee is resigning, but she’s hardly the only one. At Tuesday’s meeting, local teacher Daniel Scott gave a moving speech, declaring that the climate of rage is driving him out of the profession.

“I don’t feel that I can adequately provide a safe environment for my students anymore,” Scott said, denouncing the “draconian working conditions that are causing many such as myself to abandon this honored career.”

Meanwhile, Alyssa Marano, a math teacher who has resigned, rejected the oft-heard charge of LGBTQ indoctrination of students. “No one is teaching your kids to be gay,” she told the room. “Sometimes, they just are gay. I have math to teach. I literally don’t have time to teach your kids to be gay.”

Nearly 50 teachers are reportedly planning to resign in this school district. Lisa Masserio, president of the teachers union in Hernando County, says state laws and directives restricting educators are a key reason. She told us: “There is increased pressure and scrutiny on an already difficult job.”

At the meeting, right-wing parents and a minority of the school board amplified the usual attacks: Pornography in classrooms, indoctrination, wokeness. Watching them, it was impossible to avoid the sense that they were relishing every second of the tumult they’ve unleashed.

At the meeting, Shannon Rodriguez — a favorite of the right wing Moms for Liberty that led the attack on the Disney movie episode — kept robotically repeating phrases like “woke ideologies” and “woke agenda,” not even slightly disturbed by any sense of obligation to define their meaning. She proudly brandished her solidarity with boycotts of Bud Light and Disney as a badge of anti-woke heroism. Another conservative parent practically shouted, “You have awakened the entire alpha male blood of this country!”

But the real story of the night was the response. Again and again, parents and students forcefully defended teachers. They cast the right’s attacks, the censoring of educators and the removal of books as the real threats to education.

“War on woke?” one student said pointedly. “More like war on your children’s future.”

“It’s me and my fellow students who are feeling the effects of this,” said a second student. A third said the removal of books from classrooms is what’s really “indoctrinating students.”

Things like this are happening all over. As Sarah Jones of New York magazine reports, liberal parents in states as far-flung as New York, North Carolina and Montana are organizing local groups, pressuring school boards and running for office to challenge the right’s education takeover.

Democratic politicians are stepping up. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker will soon sign a bill that requires schools and libraries to adopt a prohibition on book removals for political reasons to qualify for state funding.

We have also learned that nine Democratic governors representing nearly 9 million students have sent a letter to leading textbook companies decrying “the negative impact that censorship and book-banning has on this nation’s students.” The letter indicates that the governors are watching closely to see if attacks on the companies by right-wing governors — such as DeSantis — are producing books that are “inappropriately censored.”

Phil Murphy, governor of New Jersey and the head of the Democratic Governors Association, says these governors will be modeling an alternative to right-wing censorship going forward.

“There’s a broad lane available for Democratic governors to reclaim the mantle of core American values — freedom, patriotism, rights,” Murphy told us. Murphy recently responded to DeSantis’s restrictions on an Advanced Placement course on African American studies by expanding the number of such classes in his state.

Just as a car wreck commands attention, the ugliness of right-wing culture-warring often transfixes the news media. But another story is beckoning: Ordinary parents everywhere and their elected representatives are responding, and declaring that they’ve had enough.

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