Higher Ed Headache: The ongoing battle for Florida’s education system

Higher Ed Headache: The ongoing battle for Florida’s education system

2023-03-16T12:37:47-04:00March 16th, 2023|Economy, Education, Government, Legal Services, Tampa Bay|

Writer: Joshua Andino 

3 min read March 2023 — Florida’s educational landscape is changing, and the future remains uncertain. 

The emphasis on the availability of talent over the last few years has placed greater scrutiny on workforce development pipelines and the qualifications employers are seeking from recent graduates. In today’s political environment, that has led to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to restructure Florida’s higher education institutions. 

Gov. DeSantis, who has yet to declare his decision to run for the Presidency despite his ongoing national book tour and donor meetings, has continually emphasized the importance of a valuable education – often critical of schools that offer “zombie studies,” and claiming indoctrination of students into ideology. Critical Race Theory – CRT, and diversity initiatives have been frequent targets, with the governor arguing the studies have no economic value, as he argued when his administration refused the revised curriculum from the College Board for its AP African American studies course in January. 

The ongoing effort to reshape Florida’s higher education system began with Sarasota’s New College of Florida, a small public liberal arts college that saw six new DeSantis-appointed board members, of which only two were Florida residents at the time of appointment at the beginning of the year. In an email to CNN, DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy T. Redfern wrote, “In particular, New College of Florida has reached a moment of critical mass, wherein low student enrollment and other financial stresses have emerged from its skewed focus and impractical course offerings.”

The new board moved immediately to terminate and replace the school’s president with former education commissioner Richard Corcoran, abolish the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, whose staff was transferred to other open positions, and increase Corcoran’s salary to $699,000 – one of the highest in the state. Former president Patricia Okker made $305,000. Debra Jenks, chairwoman of the board, explained at the vote that Corcoran is “battle-tested and ready on Day One,” adding that the number of changes coming to the school warranted the increase. 

Declining undergraduate enrollment has been an ongoing national trend for the last decade, with many ascribing the trend to both smaller highschool graduating classes and a general reconsideration over the value of a college education. The pandemic and remote work has exacerbated the issue. Despite this, many other Florida schools have seen stable or slight growth in enrollments over the last few years. New College has not. 

While the New College saga remains ongoing, Tallahassee legislators are looking to take DeSantis’ reforms across the state education system. Proponents of House Bill 999 argue it would provide greater clarity for students looking to make the most of their education. Provisions in the bill would require schools to provide students with the most up-to-date information from the Office of Economic Development on which degrees pay most and least as well as job placement statistics for degree earners after one year of receiving the degree. 

Opponents argue it would eliminate academic freedom, arguing that the bill’s provisions explicitly direct schools to “remove from its programs any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory,  including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality, as defined in Board of Governors regulation, or any major or minor that includes a curriculum that promotes the concepts listed in s. 1000.05(4)(a),” is overly broad. The bill would also essentially eliminate tenure, with tenured faculty subject to both 5-year reviews and for-cause reviews. 

Under pressure from Black student leaders, the state Senate changed its version of the bill, SB 266, to remove the most severe provisions that would ban majors and minors in the aforementioned subjects. The language remains in the House version of the bill, reports WUSF. 

The current efforts to reform the state’s higher education system may also provide an additional challenge to hiring, with one UF student telling the Miami Herald, “I hear people a lot of the time now, saying, ‘As soon as I’m done with college, I’m moving away.’” 

That same challenge may apply to the schools themselves. In another conversation over Faculty’s collective bargaining agreements with the Tampa Bay Times, Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, explained the agreements had protected faculty from leaving over concerns over classroom content or political loyalty. “Students don’t need faculty constantly rotating in and out of these research programs and out of their labs,” he said. “They need stability so these programs can be maintained as they work through 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year programs. We don’t need a revolving door of faculty, we need stability.”

State-wide protests at a number of schools , including New College, FIU, USF-St. Petersburg, Rollins College, and the University of Florida (which is ranked as the No. 5 public university in the nation) have become increasingly common over the course of the last month as the Legislature moves forward with the bill. 

Currently, Florida has a Republican majority in the state legislature. The 40-seat Senate hosts 28 Republicans to 12 Democrats, while the 120-member House is made up of 84 Republicans and 35 Democrats. DeSantis, for his part, was re-elected by a 19-point margin against Democrat Charlie Christ, with voter turnout at 53.8%. 

While it remains to be seen if the bills will make it through the legislature – and what the final text will include considering the recent discrepancies between the House and Senate versions, it seems likely that both pass. What the long-term effect will be on Florida’s schools, and the talent they recruit to teach and produce for employers, remains to be seen. 

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