Published June 30, 2021
In an impressive move, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has vetoed a stealth protest-civics bill, S.B. 146. Ostensibly, S.B. 146 was designed to forward “civic literacy education.” In fact, it was a quiet effort to gain money and state sponsorship for protest civics (aka “action civics”), a practice that grants course credit for student political protests and lobbying, almost invariably for leftist causes. Although DeSantis has moved to bar Critical Race Theory (CRT) from Florida’s schools, S.B. 146 could very easily have allowed CRT to creep back into Florida’s education system.
What makes the DeSantis veto so impressive is that S.B. 146 passed the Florida State Legislature unanimously, with support from some powerful sponsors as well. The fact that S.B. 146 would facilitate protest civics and CRT only became evident after passage. When I dug into the details of the bill, I found the hidden problems and wrote about them here at NRO. Frankly, serious problems notwithstanding, I thought that prospects were dim for a gubernatorial veto of a bill that had passed unanimously. Ron DeSantis proved me wrong, and I couldn’t be more impressed. In his veto letter, DeSantis explicitly notes that S.B. 146 would further politically biased “action civics.” Precisely.
The DeSantis veto of S.B. 146 marks a turning point in the national battle over protest civics. Heretofore, states have passed stealth action-civics bills with bipartisan support. Similarly misguided bills are pending in Congress. It’s unlikely that Republicans in Florida would have supported S.B. 146 if they’d heard about protest civics and understood its nature. The same goes for Republicans unknowingly supporting protest-civics bills in other states.
Time and again, however, Democrats approach naïve Republicans and ask them to support “bipartisan” legislation on “civics.” The Republicans may notice some bits in the bills about “civic engagement,” yet no alarm bells ring. It sounds all red, white, and blue, but the “civics” involved has more to do with Saul Alinsky than with teaching about the three branches of government, checks and balances, or the principles of federalism. Once Republicans sign on as co-sponsors of these stealthy protest-civics bills, it’s tough to back down. The bills pass, and presto, a state school system has effectively mandated extra-curricular leftist political protests as part of “civic education.” (For background on protest civics, go here.)
This is exactly what happened earlier this year in Rhode Island. I warned that a bipartisan bill in that state was a stealth protest-civics bill. Unfortunately, the Republican co-sponsors dug in and the bill passed both houses unanimously. Now students in Rhode Island are literally required to do political lobbying as part of their civics course. At the federal level, the alliance convened by the National Association of Scholars to fight action civics has called on both Senator John Cornyn and Representative Tom Cole to abandon their support for a deeply misguided federal protest-civics bill. Neither has budged, and Cornyn has even made false assertions about the nature of the bill.
The tide began to turn in Texas, however. There, action-civics advocates failed to secure bipartisan sponsorship for their most radical bill, but managed to get Republican backing for a stealthier protest-civics proposal. In the end, however, Texas became the first state to pass a bill that actually barred protest civics. Now moves to bar protest civics are underway in Georgia, Ohio (where I just testified), and other states as well.
The DeSantis veto of S.B. 146 shows that the push-back against protest civics has truly gained traction. It can’t have been easy to veto a bill that passed unanimously. But knowledge of the troublesome practice of protest civics is spreading, and surely this helped to sink the bill. Grassroots education groups in Florida called on DeSantis to veto S.B. 146, and even a short time ago conservatives wouldn’t have known enough about protest civics to even notice a bill like this. With the grassroots rebellion sweeping the country on education issues, all of that has changed. This veto is every bit as much a tribute to the parents across Florida now fighting against politicized schools as it is to Governor DeSantis.
I doubt that a single Republican legislator who voted for S.B. 146 understood its true implications. The bill sounds innocent enough. It simply sets up a partnership between a local university and the YMCA’s “Youth in Government” program. After all, how political could it be if the Y is involved? Nowadays, very political indeed. Like so many formerly apolitical institutions, the Y has gone woke. Their Youth in Government program is deeply engaged in “Unlearning Systemic Racism.” The YMCA’s “Changemakers Institute” is a hotbed of leftist protest civics. Republicans have been repeatedly duped by this sort of thing. Fortunately, DeSantis has caught on and isn’t afraid to slam the door on the left’s new “civics” scam.
The big test now is whether South Dakota’s governor Kristi Noem can match DeSantis by aggressively moving to block protest civics in her own state. Last month, I reported that Noem had been the first major figure to sign the pioneering 1776 Action pledge, which commits office-holders to fight both action civics and CRT. Noem’s move helped inspire Glenn Youngkin, Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, to do the same.
Noem deserves praise for being out in front on this issue, but now she faces a significant challenge. As I noted in May, even ruby-red South Dakota is currently crafting social-studies standards that give a prominent place to leftist protest civics. Noem has yet to block those standards, and it is vital that she redeem her public pledge by doing so.
With his veto of S.B. 146, Ron DeSantis has shown that he can do the heavy lifting required for the education battles ahead. This impressive move confirms DeSantis as one of the foremost leaders in the national push-back against the politicization of America’s schools.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.