Editorial: Don’t use Florida’s children as pawns in political games

This is what we believe to be true about Florida parents: They don’t want the government indoctrinating their kids, or usurping their own decisions when it comes to belief systems, sexuality, faith or politics.

That’s true of Republicans. Of Democrats. Of those who have rejected partisan labels, and those who don’t care about politics at all.

Politicians understand that as well. That’s why they often pitch their most egregious efforts to interject themselves into those family conversations as responses to attacks on parental freedom from “the other side.”

Liberals and conservatives alike have used this as their battle cry. But only rarely has it been weaponized to the level seen over the past few years in Florida. Two recent stories make it abundantly clear that state officials don’t just want to protect children. They want to indoctrinate them using just those words.

The first story comes from the revelation, by the Sentinel’s Leslie Postal and the Florida Freedom to Read Project, of a secretive hire by the Florida Department of Education. Terry Stoops is head of the new Office of Academically Successful and Resilient Districts, housed in the state Department of Education, and his job appears to be aimed at collaborating with school board members across the state who share the far-right ideology that’s been spreading throughout Florida’s K-12 system.

We say “appears to be” because this office seems to be under some official cloak of invisibility so far as state officials are concerned. Repeated public records requests have failed to unearth even the most basic data about Stoops’ operation, including Stoops’ salary, a listing of how many people work there and the new office’s budget. Nor can we find any legislative or budgetary mention of this office. We did find one additional hire, and advertisements on higher-education job boards for one or possibly two other positions.

But thanks in large part to records unearthed by the Freedom to Read Project and Postal, we know what he’s up to. They obtained emails and his calendar, which shows that, in the first months on the job, he reached out to conservative school board members and far-right advocacy groups such as Moms for Liberty. His emails reveal a chummy, conspiratorial tone. On May 10, for example, he emailed Orange County School Board Alicia Farrant, a Moms for Liberty member elected to the board in November.

“I watched some of the very misguided public comments at last night’s school board meeting. I just wanted to pass along a note to thank you for serving on the board and standing up for families,” Stoops’ email said. Other emails and requests for online meetings went out to conservative school board members but not others.

Even with the secrecy, it’s clear what Stoops’ job is. “This department seems formed for the sole purpose of ensuring the DeSantis agenda is worked into policy,” Stephana Ferrell, one of the founders of Freedom to Read, said. “It is using tax payer funds in a very deliberate, political way.”

That’s not the only way Florida’s education system is being infiltrated by far-right views. As the Miami Herald reported, the state recently signed off on curriculum prepared by far-right nonprofit PragerU, co-founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager, as consistent with state standards on civics and government.

PragerU makes no bones about its mission: It aims to turn children into conservatives. Consider this comment, from a speech earlier this year before Moms For Liberty: “It’s true we bring doctrines to children,” Prager told the group. “But what is the bad about our indoctrination?”

This is a curious mindset for state officials to endorse, after DeSantis and others railed against “woke” ideology infiltrating public education which started off with an attack on alleged “critical race theory” material that DeSantis falsely claimed was being disseminated in Florida’s public schools. Since then, the state and school districts have been caught banning books because they merely mentioned diverse cultures or acknowledged the existence of non-heterosexual couples; outlawing policies aimed at increasing cultural awareness and launching numerous attacks on the concept that schools should be a safe, respectful space that accepts the everyday realities that Florida students encounter.

There have even been laws and policies that could put students in danger particularly, moves to undermine fair treatment of transgender students, or “out” LGBTQ students to their parents. And we’ve seen the national expressions of disgust over attempts to inject Jim Crow-era ideology into official Florida curriculum, including one passage suggesting that slavery was somehow beneficial to the miserable souls trapped in its loathsome embrace.

This does not align with Florida’s heritage as a state where all people are welcome and treated with respect. And we suspect it clashes badly with what most Florida parents are trying to teach their children.

Because we’ve come to understand, over the years, that most Floridians liberal and conservative place a high priority on raising their children as decent human beings. They teach their children to treat other people with courtesy and kindness, even those with whom they disagree. They want their children to be educated with honesty and facts, not fringe theories of the right or left.

It’s time for those parents to speak up, Republicans and Democrats alike, and tell state leaders: Educate our children with facts, and let us see to the rest. They are not pawns, and we are tired of seeing them used that way.