Florida’s election tomorrow, August 23, 2022, is a crucial one for schools across the state. Every school board has at least one seat on the ballot, and several counties also have additional school-related referendums up for vote. This election determines whether school board members will be outright elected–anyone earning over 50% of the vote will automatically earn their seat–or whether these seats will be determined in November. In municipalities where no candidate earns over 50% of the vote, the top two vote-earners will be back on the November ballot.
Jen Cousins and Stephana Ferrell, founders of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, have pulled together candidates from nearly every school board across the state using the School Board Project database. It highlights the preferred candidates, alongside information about red flag candidates (generally those who are endorsed or affiliated with Moms For Liberty). You can download the spreadsheet here. In counties where no candidate preference is noted, you’ll be able to find the names of those running to determine who would work best on behalf of the students and educators in those communities.
In addition to voting for school board candidates, many Florida counties have a millage rate increase on the ballot. The millage rate is used to determine how much money schools will receive from property taxes, and in some counties across the state, such as Duval, voting yes is especially important. In a district with over 200 schools, there are only 34 school librarians. Duval is also one of the hardest hit schools with the state teacher shortage with over 400 current vacancies.
In counties where “school choice” is gaining ground, voting to support public education is more vital than ever.
Florida has been a forerunner for book bans in the US, thanks to Moms for Liberty being founded in the state. The group, developed after a pair of women failed to win their own school board races last year, has grown to tens of thousands of members across nearly every state. Those affiliated with the organization–which has strong ties to the state’s republican party and to the Koch-funded Heritage Fund and has been using the right-wing Family Research Council’s guide to engaging with public education as a playbook–have spent the better part of a year developing “parents rights” initiatives that undermine the expertise of educators and librarians to do their jobs. Students have lost access to dozens of books thanks to their home-grown book rating system, created by volunteers with no background in education or human development.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill has also created not only an unsafe place for LGBTQ+ students and educators in Florida, but it, too, has had a detrimental effect on the beginning of the new school year. These chilling educational gag orders will continue to flourish under right-wing leadership at not just the state level, but at the local level on individual school boards. This is why it is crucial to show up and make an informed decision on these down-ballot elections. As we’ve seen elsewhere, those who do not show up do not have their voices head; instead, extreme conservatives speak on behalf of others and have had a hand in destroying public goods and services.
All of this comes on the heels of historical teacher shortages. Florida, where the state teacher association reported over 9,000 vacancies in July, has pulled in military veterans to fill these positions. Governor Ron DeSantis recently suggested that further vacancies could be filled three different ways: give first responders with bachelor’s degrees as much as $5,000 signing bonuses (i.e., putting police in classroom as teachers), create a teacher apprenticeship program for Floridians with associate’s degrees (i.e., removing the credentialing process that ensures educators are part of a profession), and launch a scholarship program so high school teachers can get their master’s degrees (i.e., not paying them the salary they deserve and ensuring their scholarships come with strings to attend approved institutions only). DeSantis does not believe it is necessary for educators to have to wait until they have a degree to be in the classroom.
If millages fail to pass and if Moms For Liberty continues to stack boards across Florida–and use that as leverage to fill more board spots across the country–the forecast for public education, run by competent, certified professionals, looks bleak.
While this may be the goal, you have the ability to speak out against it at the polls. The more wins groups like Moms For Liberty rack up now, the more leverage they will have for the coming school year. Educators and library workers and indeed anyone working in public institutions deserve voter support and deserve funding to ensure these professions remain healthy and work to serve their communities, rather than the interests of loud, well-funded, right-wing extremists.