How state policies that censor race and gender discussions in classrooms maintain economic inequality: Florida has adopted particularly dangerous laws to limit academic freedom

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests calling for justice following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, right-wing backlash has taken concrete form in highly coordinated campaigns against books, programs, or curricular resources designed to analyze and address systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia. Over the past two years in state legislatures across the United States, campaigns targeting a caricatured version of “critical race theory” (CRT) have evolved into intertwined attacks on truth itself and the workplace rights of teachers, librarians, and other educators.

A 2022 study documented how hundreds of state and local anti-“CRT” campaigns have been “fueled by powerful conservative entities (media, organizations, foundations, PACs, and politicians) that exploit and foment local frustration and dissent over what should be taught and learned in schools.” Such fear-mongering has appeared especially effective in districts facing rapid demographic shifts. School districts where white student enrollment fell by more than 18% since 2000 were more than three times as likely to experience local anti-“CRT” campaigns than districts that saw little or no enrollment change in white students.

Anti-“CRT” campaigns have emboldened school boards and state legislatures to ban teaching about racism and sexism in classrooms and to disempower educators from teaching about the true legacy of white supremacy. Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. 

Florida in particular has emerged as a primary battleground over proposals to censor truthful teaching in schools while restricting the academic freedom and union rights of educators. Earlier last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida state legislature enacted the Stop W.OK.E. Act, an acronym standing for “Wrong to our Kids and Employees.” This law limits how K12 public schools, public colleges and universities, and Florida employers discuss race, gender, and sexual identity. 

In conjunction with attempts to restrict teaching about racism and equity, DeSantis also signed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, known formally as the Parental Rights in Education bill, that limits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity within public schools for K3 students. These restrictions have forced many teachers and librarians to remove certain books discussing these topics and to enforce stricter guidelines on what students should and should not be allowed to read. Specifically, Florida mandates librarians go through training to avoid selecting books and instructional materials that violate any of these laws, and to “err on the side of caution” while making their selections.

In tandem with censoring Florida school curriculum, DeSantis has focused attacks on unions representing K12 and university educators and staff, which have been the strongest organized source of statewide resistance to his extremist anti-education agenda. DeSantis started off the year by announcing support for a package of anti-union proposals aimed at eroding the bargaining power of educators and other public employees. DeSantis’s proposals repackaged and revived legislation introduced perennially in Florida in attempts to weaken public employees’ union rights. 

In May, DeSantis signed into law SB 256, a bill filled with new legal and administrative hurdles intended to make it more difficult for Florida public employees to join or maintain their unions. For example, the new law bans payroll deduction of union dues, forces local unions to undergo costly audits, and requires that an arbitrary 60% super majority of eligible employees pay dues in order for a public employee union to maintain its legal certification from the state. These attacks are a focused effort to further diminish the collective power of workers, teachers, students, and people of color.

These explicit attacks on education and educators create a dangerous precedent of censorship and erect new barriers to analyzing and addressing racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s crucial to protect the integrity of our classrooms by providing students accurate information about our country’s racial and gender history, and how this history informs our present reality. Without this knowledge, a significant number of labor market disparities—such as wages and unemployment—as well as other U.S. institutions would remain unaccounted for.

Censorship in schools, particularly when it comes to discussions around race and gender, could have a significant impact on students’ understanding of crucial labor market realities. For instance, in 2022, women in the United States were paid roughly 22% less than men on average, with even wider gaps for women of color. Similarly, studies have shown that African American and Hispanic students have lower academic achievement and graduation rates compared with their white and Asian American peers. These disparities are rooted in systemic inequalities, and without discussing them in the classroom, students may not fully understand the extent of the problem. 

Indeed, under Florida’s new censorship regime, it is unclear whether public school teachers could legally help students understand past or present struggles to address these very disparities in their own state’s education system—including, for example, the 1968 statewide teachers’ strike (the first in U.S. history) in which 27,000 Black and white Florida teachers joined forces in the newly integrated Florida Education Association to win stronger state investments in public education and increased teacher pay. 

Within education policy, the challenges that confront us extend beyond the assault on discussions related to systemic racism and sexism. Underfunded public education, low teacher pay, and the continued segregation of school districts pose persistent challenges to equity in education and socioeconomic outcomes. In 2021, teachers made on average 23.5% less per week of work than other college graduates in the workforce, after controlling for workers’ education, age, state of residence, and a range of additional characteristics that may affect earnings. This teacher pay gap has increased almost continuously since the mid-1990s, when it stood at about 5% overall. Moreover, the pay gap for teachers and other local government employees tends to be largest in states where public employees have weaker collective bargaining rights. States like Florida that have recently moved to further limit educators’ union rights can expect to see teacher pay gaps continue to increase as a result.

Another key contributor to low teacher pay is the underfunding of public education, which has encouraged some educators to leave the profession altogether. As public schools continue to receive less resources, parents may start to enroll their children in private schoolssegregating students even more. Parents are often incentivized to enroll their children in private schools through voucher programs that funnel public funds into private schools. In Florida, specifically, DeSantis has introduced legislation to expand private school vouchers which, when coupled with the defunding of public schools, mirror the same strategies legislators used after the Supreme Court case Brown v. The Board of Education required integrated schools in the late 1950’s through the 1970’s. This ultimately resulted in the same hysteria that resulted in white parents enrolling their kids in segregation academies.

Intertwined attacks on public education systems and the rights of education workers in states like Florida illustrate how state policies maintain disparities in educational institutions and labor markets, continuing the long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The learning and unlearning we all must do to redress the role of structural racism and sexism within our institutions and public policies starts within the classroomand must be protected.