The Corner

Politics & Policy

DeSantis Should Veto SB 146

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport in Pensacola, Fla., October 23, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Florida SB 146, a bill on “civic literacy education” taught via “civic engagement activities” has been passed by the Florida legislature and sent to Governor DeSantis’s desk. Unfortunately, SB 146 contains no protections against politicized “action civics” and will easily be used as a wedge to import protest civics into Florida. As if that weren’t enough, although the Florida Board of Education has just approved new academic standards barring critical race theory (CRT), SB 146 creates an opening for the insertion of CRT into Florida’s education system. DeSantis should veto SB 146 and return next year with a civics bill that contains the necessary protections against protest civics.

I wrote about the original version of SB 146 in March. At that time, the bill would have made a way for the importation of leftist protest civics into all of Florida’s schools. The good news is that the Florida House struck that language and substituted provisions less likely to politicize the entire Florida school system. The new version of SB 146 sets up two special programs for “civic engagement” and limits them to select participants instead. Nonetheless, those programs, especially the second one, are headed for politicization.

The first program established by the revised SB 146 is a “civic literacy practicum.” This “practicum” or extra-curricular “project” is quite similar to a politicized action-civics project in structure. Instead of extra-curricular political protests or lobbying, however, the “civic literacy practicum” described in the bill is apolitical. Here, the danger is that the listed activities might someday be supplemented by others that would allow for political protests and lobbying.

The second “civic engagement” program established by the revised version of SB 146 is far more dangerous. The bill sets up a “Civic Engagement Citizen Scholar Program” at the “Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida.” The bill also instructs the University of Florida to contract with the YMCA’s “Youth in Government” program. In this case, everything depends on whether the University of South Florida and the YMCA’s Youth in Government program stay clear of politicized action civics.

While both entities may do some good work, there are huge danger signs as well. The national YMCA’s Youth in Government program has jumped on the CRT bandwagon. The main site, for example, contains a link to the YMCA’s “Unlearning Systemic Racism” program. (That link is broken, but here’s a link to the YMCA’s “Unlearning Systemic Racism” page.) True, the Florida Board of Education has barred CRT from classroom instruction. That ban would not apply, however, to extra-curricular “civic engagement” activities in a special program set up by legislation. In short, despite Florida’s recent bar on CRT, SB 146 clearly makes a way for CRT to enter civic education in Florida.

Consider also the Twitter feed of the Florida YMCA Youth in Government program. It touts the YMCA Changemakers Institute, which provides avenues for student political activism in areas such as “Climate Action & Sustainability,” “Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights,” “Racial Equity & Justice,” etc., all displayed on a rainbow flag. I must have missed the sections on activism in defense of religious liberty, free speech, and Second Amendment. This is classic, left-biased action civics. Of course, the Florida YMCA Youth in Government twitter feed speaks with eager anticipation of SB 146, since it promises to fund such politicized activism under the guise of “civic engagement.” SB 146 would even allow participants in advocacy through the YMCA Youth in Government program to earn undergraduate credit for their political protests.

It’s also of note that the YMCA is a major supporter of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, and no doubt other similar bills whose priority criteria favor politicized action civics. If one of the four big federal bills providing grants for action civics should pass, the University of South Florida’s Center for Civic Engagement and the YMCA Youth in Government Program will likely be major beneficiaries. This would enable them to greatly expand their activities, and would almost certainly push both entities even further in the direction of politicized action civics (with a healthy dose of CRT in the mix). It’s hardly surprising that the Florida YMCA Youth in Government Program touts the largest of the federal bills on its Twitter feed.

To prevent this sort of politicization — precisely what Florida’s governor and Board of Education oppose — DeSantis needs to veto SB 146. Instead, he should consider supporting legislation along the lines of my model bill with the National Association of Scholars, which would prevent the takeover of civic education by ideologically partisan political activism. Texas has just passed such a bill, and another like it has just been introduced in Ohio. And if, in the future, Florida wants to set up special internships in government outside of ordinary classroom activities, any bill doing so should contain provisions that explicitly bar political protest and lobbying from state-sponsored civics programs.

In short, SB 146 presents a test for Governor DeSantis. Signing this bill would authorize and fund precisely the politicized and radical activism he has pledged to remove from Florida’s education system. I don’t doubt that few of Florida’s legislators realized this when they voted for SB 146. That is the problem. Politicized protest civics hides under soothing labels such as “civic engagement.” Now that the governor knows what’s at stake, he needs to veto this bill.

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