'Indoctrination' claims about public schools lead Sarasota teacher to seek office
Derek Reich, 27, says the changes Florida's Republican governor and legislature made to education standards align to their political views and is indoctrination. It's led the Democrat to seek state office in November.
A series of new laws regarding what can and can't be taught in Florida's classrooms is concerning some educators, as are changes to the high school civics curriculum for next year.
Derek Reich teaches 12th grade economics and government, and is a Democratic candidate in November for a state House seat in Sarasota's District 73.
He talked with WUSF's Kerry Sheridan about how new standards being implemented by the state for 2023-'24 drop requirements to teach about some Supreme Court cases, including Roe v Wade, which legalized abortion. That law was recently overturned by the high court in what is known as the Dobbs decision.
Kerry Sheridan: Tell me about how things have changed since the Parental Rights in Education law and the Stop Woke Act? What have they actually changed about teaching in Florida this year?
Derek Reich: “When I present information, I do so without any political bias in my classroom, because I teach the two most inherently political subjects probably in K through 12 (government and economics). So when I teach, I never share my own political views. And I tell my students, I'm here to make you think, not tell you what to think. And so one thing that I always do when we have discussions is I play devil's advocate. whatever side my students don't take, I will argue the opposite. So when I have a liberal student argue a liberal point, I will argue the conservative point to make them see the other side to gain a greater perspective and vice versa.
"And the one thing I do fear is when I'm playing devil's advocate, and getting my students to fully understand all sides of an issue, if someone is now offended, whether they be liberal or conservative, are they going to come and try to sue me?
"And that's something really difficult as I try to, in my own classroom, model the political discourse that we really should see in society where you can respect other people's views when you don't hold them yourself. And I'm really, you know, not scared. But a lot of teachers are, especially other teachers teaching government, to do that."
KS: What is it exactly about the law that makes you concerned about that?
DR: “These laws were written so vaguely and so poorly, that you can really be sued for so many things. Even if they don't win, you're still going to have to end up defending yourself and paying thousands of dollars.
“And they were written so poorly that, for example, this last week, our school district told us that look, Jonathan, whose government name is Jonathan, if you want to call him anything else -- like his friends call him John, his parents call him John -- if you want to call him by his nickname, John, you have to get a permission slip. For any student that wants to be called by something other than their official name on their birth certificate.
“So there's so many minor things that teachers are concerned about. If I can't call Jonathan “John,” when everyone in his family does without getting a permission slips, slips signed, that's a really difficult place to be as a teacher.
“When you have a governor and legislature playing politics like this with education, it's only going to hurt our students in the classroom."
KS: So this has to do with the pronouns and things like that. But it's also extended to actual names?
DR: “Absolutely. And I think it was targeted towards trans kids. But when you try to do that, it goes towards everyone, anyone that goes by different names.”
KS: What other changes have you seen in standards that can be taught or things that really affect what you teach in the classroom?
DR: “I teach government and next year, the state is implementing new standards. As they've changed, there are two things that really stick out to me. When it comes to the Supreme Court cases that we have to teach as teachers, two of them were dropped and the new standards that start next year, and one of them is Roe v. Wade, and the other is Johnson v. Texas. Now, when they created these standards, this was long before the Dobbs decision came down (which overturned Roe in spring 2022).
“And Johnson v. Texas deals with burning the American flag and that that is protected speech. Now, I would never burn the American flag. But I think it's really important that students understand what their constitutional rights are. And you have this you have the governor and the Republican legislature accused teachers of being you know, indoctrinators, when they themselves are choosing what standards they are going to teach that help their political side, and that is indoctrinating. They're doing literally what they accuse teachers of doing.
KS: When exactly were they removed? And when does it take effect?
DR: “They were removed in the standards that go into effect next school year.”
KS: Okay, and does that mean next year, you can't talk about Roe v. Wade?
DR: “That's where it gets a little bit difficult to answer, because as long as you can relate something to a state standard, you are okay. But since they removed those two cases from the clarifications in the standard, it's a little… I'm not sure.
“And it's really where, am I going to get sued if I teach this? Since it's not specifically stated? It's a major landmark Supreme Court case. And that's the problem we're having in the classroom is you have teachers that are afraid to teach. And that's going to hurt our children."
KS: How do you think it's affecting the students? I mean, school just started August 10. But do you see any effect on the students yet?
DR: “I think it is affecting teachers first by what they're going to teach and how they're going to teach. And then it's obviously going to affect students in that way.
“Like, we are told that, you know, donated books, we can't accept them anymore. You're having a lot of teachers completely just pull every book from their classroom. Because if there's one book in a teacher's library that a student wants to read, they literally have to get a permission slip sent home, in the high school environment. And I was told by an elementary school teacher, who's a friend of mine, that she had to remove all of her books from her class.
“And look, when I was in school, whether it be elementary school or high school, when I was doing my work, I would go read a book and practice my literacy skills. And that is not available to kids today, as we are struggling in our literacy rates, proficiency rates are dropping in this county, and in this state."
KS: Do you plan to teach what's going on currently in your class? Can you do that?
DR: “That's a really difficult question. And one I've thought about a lot. Now, when I teach, I present both sides. So I will try to do that. And I will do it professionally, where my students don't know what my political opinion is. But there is that level of fear of if one person is offended, even if it's a liberal student, because I'm arguing the other side, am I going to get sued? Am I going to have to defend myself and pay thousands of dollars? In a case I'll win, but then I'll pay $10,000, you know, defending myself, and that's a great fear."
KS: Do you think you'll stay in teaching?
DR: “I ask that question myself all the time. I signed up to be a teacher to help young people. I still talk to hundreds of my former students, and when you get letters is at the end of the year saying thank you. You fundamentally helped change my life. You can hear my voice. That means a lot to me. Everything else besides the kids and teaching makes you want to leave.
“And I'm actually running for state representative in House District 73 in Sarasota County, which is the closest House District in the entire state of Florida. Trump and Biden tied it at 49%.
“And the reason I decided to run is my state representative Fiona McFarland voted to cut $12 million from Sarasota County Schools, and Florida's record House budget this year, because we had a mask mandate for a couple of weeks. And what Representative goes to Tallahassee and votes to take away funding from their own community’s kids?
“And when I win, I'm going to be a proud teacher. And like most teachers, I'm going to have a second job. It's just going to be representing my community in Tallahassee.”
KS: So you wouldn't leave teaching? I was wondering if you had to weigh whether to continue to be a teacher or become an elected representative?
DR: “No, absolutely not. The legislative session is about 60 days. I have great administrators who are willing to work with me. And so I would take 60 days on unpaid leave, and I would still be able to zoom into my class, record all my lectures, and my students would be taken care of, and I would come back after 60 days and be their teacher once again."
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