Florida Board of Education takes aim at 'DEI' and a sociology course
TALLAHASSEE — Carrying out parts of a controversial 2023 law, the State Board of Education on Wednesday approved rules that will prevent colleges from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and remove a sociology class from a list of “core” courses.
The rules stem from a law (SB 266) approved in May by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor, who has been traveling the country for months in his presidential campaign, has made fighting against diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives a pillar of his education agenda.
One of the rules approved Wednesday defines DEI as “any program, campus activity, or policy that classifies individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation and promotes differential or preferential treatment of individuals on the basis of such classification.”
State Board of Education Chairman Ben Gibson echoed previous remarks by DeSantis, saying “DEI really is a cover for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination. That has no place in our state colleges at all, and our state colleges need to be focused on learning.”
Under the rule, Florida’s 28 state colleges will not be able to use state or federal money to “promote, support, or maintain” programs or campus activities that would violate a state law related to discrimination against students and employees.
Part of the law says that it would constitute discrimination to subject students or employees to instruction or training that would “compel” them to believe that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.”
Also prohibited are expenditures that would “advocate for DEI.” The measure defines such advocacy, in part, as colleges promoting “the position that a group or an individual’s action is inherently, unconsciously, or implicitly biased on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”
Florida’s 12 state universities also have been barred from spending money on DEI initiatives under the law. In November, the university system’s Board of Governors approved a public notice of intent to adopt a regulation that would carry out the prohibition.
The colleges and university measures also are designed to prohibit expenditures that “promote or engage in political or social activism” as defined by the rules.
The college system’s rule, which is nearly identical to the university system’s measure, defines such activism as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the institution endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs, or campus activities.”
In a November statement, Florida National Organization for Women President Debbie Deland said the universities’ regulation represents “unabashed assaults” on democratic values.
“Shamelessly violating freedom of speech, freedom of assembly in the hallowed ground coveted for the intellectual and humane development of our future citizenry and our future leaders is intolerable,” Deland said.
The Board of Education on Wednesday also approved an update to a rule about general education course options, which can be used to fulfill required coursework in various subject areas.
The revamped rule, in part, removes the course Principles of Sociology from a list of courses that students could take to complete coursework in the social sciences. In its place, the board elected to add a history course titled Introductory Survey to 1877.
Education Commissioner Manny Diaz said the sociology course involves the teaching of theories, which he said under the 2023 law puts the class out of compliance with the state’s requirements for core courses.
“The course in sociology is still available for students to take. But I think the statute is clear, that within the general education code, courses may not distort significant historical events or include curriculum that teaches identity politics or theories,” Diaz said Wednesday.
The commissioner contrasted the sociology course to the newly added history course.
“I think when you go into the sociology course you’re talking about theories. And that’s an option that students have, to explore those theories in a non-general education course. But it is important that our students are well-versed in American history, including those periods covered in (the history course) which includes things like slavery, and leading up to the Civil War,” Diaz said.
The push to remove sociology as a general education course has drawn pushback. During a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, criticized education officials’ actions.
“The Board of Governors, y’all, they are going after not just DEI, but sociology as a program. Please understand that every culture war really is a class war. We have to do what we can to ensure that regardless of how much money you have, that you can read books about yourself,” Eskamani said.