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National union president: DeSantis has 'dehumanized' teachers

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, visited Broward County schools and called our Gov. Ron DeSantis for what she says are his 'divisive' education policies. She spoke at a press conference of the Broward Teachers Union in Tamarac on Sept. 21, 2022.
Kate Payne / WLRN
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Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, visited Broward County schools and called our Gov. Ron DeSantis for what she says are his 'divisive' education policies. She spoke at a press conference of the Broward Teachers Union in Tamarac on Sept. 21, 2022.

The president of the nation’s second largest teachers union called out Gov. Ron DeSantis for his "divisive" education agenda, as she visited Broward County this week.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says she and her members are focused on helping students recover from the disruptions and the trauma of virtual learning — and she’s asking DeSantis to work with them, rather than trying to “divide parents and teachers”.

“We can help kids recover and thrive,” Weingarten said. “And we would ask the governor instead of smearing teachers, instead of calling them names, roll up your sleeves and work with us to actually help kids thrive.”

Weingarten, along with staff from the Broward Teachers Union and the Florida Education Association, made visits to Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale and Crystal Lake Middle School in Pompano Beach on Wednesday, to hear directly from educators and students.

The visit to Broward County comes at a time when the district is under pressure from state officials. DeSantis recently removed four Broward school board members from office, after a grand jury found evidence of fraud and mismanagement in the district.

Three district administrators were forced out after being named in the grand jury report. The chair of the Florida Board of Education has also suggested that Broward Superintendent Vickie Cartwright should be suspended.

 Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco speaks to reporters at the union's headquarters on Sept. 21, 2022.
Kate Payne / WLRN
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Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco speaks to reporters at the union's headquarters on Sept. 21, 2022.

“Right here in our Broward County Public Schools, what [DeSantis] has done to our very own school board and some of our administrators in our central office,” said Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco, “no one can just stay silent anymore.”

In response to a request for comment from WLRN, a spokesperson for DeSantis said the governor had a duty to remove the board members after the grand jury recommended they be suspended.

"It’s inconceivable that Randi Weingarten would travel to Florida and attempt to politicize the results of the findings of an independent grand jury formed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy. That she would insert herself and make these statements is a slap in the face to a community who is seeking justice," Press Secretary Bryan Griffith said in a written statement.

At a press conference at BTU headquarters, Weingarten said local officials and educators far beyond Broward County are feeling the effects of DeSantis’ education agenda, after he signed measures into law restricting how race, sexual orientation and gender identity can be discussed in the classroom.

“They didn’t come into teaching to be demagogued, to be dehumanized, to be smeared. They came into teaching to make a difference in the lives of children,” Weingarten said. “And I’m asking the governor: why don’t you work with us to do that?”

Asked by a reporter about the Miami-Dade County School Board’s recent decision to not recognize October as LGBTQ History Month, Weingarten said board members voted against the proclamation out of fear.

“The Miami-Dade board is now scared. And so that's why they did what they did. Do I think it was wrong? I think it was wrong. I don't think even the parameters of the law that was passed require them to do that,” she said. “But that's the chilling effect that we're seeing all across America.”

DeSantis has significantly expanded his influence over local education policy recently, after nearly two dozen school board candidates he endorsed won their races — on a pledge to support his “parents’ rights” agenda.

Critics say that his efforts to restrict classroom debates and to reshape curriculum are an alarming infringement on free speech. DeSantis has also been criticized for weaving biblical rhetoric into his political speeches and portraying his fights with opponents as a religious battle between good and evil.

“His interference in our schools has shown us how far he is willing to go to punish those of us who do not agree with his extremist agenda for our schools,” said Florida Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Nandi Riley. “Gov. DeSantis has shown us who he is. It is time we believe him. This November, our public schools are on the ballot.”

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.