Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right education policies
SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — On a Sunday afternoon in late May 2022, Zander Moricz, then class president of Sarasota County’s Pine View School, spent the moments before his graduation speech sitting outside the auditorium, on the phone with his lawyers. Over the previous month, the question of what he’d say when he stepped to the podium had become national news. That March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, quickly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law for its ban on all mention of gender identity and sexuality in K–3 classrooms and restriction of those discussions in higher grades as well. Moricz, a student LGBTQ+ activist, had led several protests against the act that spring and joined a high-profile lawsuit against the state. In early May, he charged on Twitter that Pine View’s administration had warned that if he mentioned his activism or the lawsuit at graduation, his microphone would be cut. (In a statement released last year, the school district confirmed that students are told not to express political views in their speeches.)
In the tumultuous weeks leading up to the ceremony, Pine View — Sarasota’s “gifted” magnet institution, consistently ranked one of the top 25 public high schools in the country — was besieged with angry calls and news coverage. Moricz stayed home for three weeks, he said, thanks to the volume of death threats he received, and people showed up at his parents’ work. When a rumor started that Pine View’s principal would have to wear a bulletproof vest to graduation, he recalled, “the entire campus lost their minds,” thinking “everyone’s going to die” and warning relatives not to come. His parents worried he’d be killed.
But after all the controversy, graduation day was a success. Moricz, now 19, delivered a pointedly coded speech about the travails of being born with curly hair in Florida’s humid climate: how he worried about the “thousands of curly-haired kids who are going to be forced to speak like this” — like he was, in code — “for their entire lives as students.” Videos of the speech went viral. Donations poured into Moricz’s youth-led nonprofit. That summer, he left to study government at Harvard.
Half-a-year later though, when Moricz came home, Sarasota felt darker.
“I’m wearing this hat for a reason,” he said when we met for coffee in a strip mall near his alma mater in early March. “Two years ago, if I was bullied due to my queerness, the school would have rallied around me and shut it down. If it happened today, I believe everyone would act like it wasn’t happening.”
These days, he said, queer kids sit in the back of class and don’t tell teachers they’re being harassed. A student at Pine View was told, Moricz said, that he couldn’t finish his senior thesis researching other states’ copycat “Don’t Say Gay” laws. (The school did not respond to a request for comment through a district spokesperson.) When Moricz’s nonprofit found a building to house a new youth LGBTQ+ center — since schools were emphatically no longer safe spaces — they budgeted for bulletproof glass.
“The culture of fear that’s being created is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he said. And much of it was thanks to the Sarasota County School Board.
Over the last two years, education culture wars have become the engine of Republican politics nationwide, with DeSantis’s Florida serving as the vanguard of the movement. But within the state, Sarasota is more central still.
Its school board chair, Bridget Ziegler, cofounded the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty and helped lay the groundwork for “Don’t Say Gay.” After a uniquely ugly school board race last summer, conservatives flipped the board and promptly forced out the district’s popular superintendent. In early January, when DeSantis appointed a series of right-wing activists to transform Florida’s progressive New College into a “Hillsdale of the South” — emulating the private Christian college in Michigan that has become a trendsetting force on the right — that was in Sarasota too. In February, DeSantis sat alongside Ziegler’s husband and Moms for Liberty’s other cofounders to announce a list of 14 school board members he intends to help oust in 2024—Sarasota’s sole remaining Democrat and LGBTQ+ board member, Tom Edwards, among them. The next month, Ziegler proposed that the board hire a newly created education consultancy group with ties to Hillsdale College for what she later called a “‘WOKE’ Audit.” (Ziegler did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
The dizzying number of attacks has led to staffing and hiring challenges, the cancelation of a class, a budding exodus of liberals from the county, and fears that destroying public education is the ultimate endgame. In January, Ziegler’s husband, Christian — who chairs the Florida Republican Party — tweeted a celebratory declaration: “SARASOTA IS GROUND ZERO FOR CONSERVATIVE EDUCATION.”
It wasn’t hyperbole, said Moricz. “We say that Sarasota is Florida’s underground lab, and we’re its non-consenting lab rats.”
For as long as Florida has been grading schools and school districts — a late 1990s innovation that helped spark the “school reform” movement — Sarasota, with its 62 schools and nearly 43,000 students, has enjoyed an “A” rating. Perched on the Gulf Coast just south of Tampa, the county’s mix of powder-soft beaches and high-culture amenities — including an opera house, ballet and museums — have made it a destination for vacationers and retirees. And that influx has made Sarasota one of the richest counties in the state.
Since many of those retirees, dating back to the 1950s, have been white Midwestern transplants, it’s also made Sarasota a Republican stronghold and top fundraising destination for would-be presidential candidates. Both the last and current chairs of the state GOP — first State Senator Joe Gruters and now Christian Ziegler — live in the county. Sarasota arguably launched Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, thanks to Gruters’s early support. These days, though, Sarasota isn’t just conservative, but at the leading edge of Florida’s turn to the hard right.
Partly that’s thanks to the Zieglers, who have become one of Florida’s premier power couples, with close ties to both Trump world and the DeSantis administration and a trio of daughters enrolled in local private schools. As founder of the digital marketing company Microtargeted Media, Christian did hundreds of thousands of dollars of work for pro-Trump PACs in 2021, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. After being elected state GOP chair this February, he announced his goal was “to crush these leftist in-state Democrats” so thoroughly that “no Democrat considers running for office.” Although Bridget stepped down from Moms for Liberty shortly after its founding, she subsequently helped draft Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which helped pave the way for DeSantis’s 2021 ban on mask mandates and ultimately last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. In 2022, the right-wing Leadership Institute hired her as director of school board programs, and built a 6,000-square-foot headquarters in Sarasota to serve as a national hub for conservative education activism. This winter, DeSantis also appointed her to a new board designed to punish the Disney Company for criticizing his anti-LGBTQ laws.
“I’m telling you right now, whether I’m here or not, you have to get the politics out of this school district.”
Brennan Asplen, former superintendent, Sarasota County schools
But it wasn’t just them. After Trump lost reelection in 2020, leaders across the far right, from Steve Bannon to the Proud Boys, called for a “precinct by precinct” battle to take control of both the Republican Party and local government. Many making that call were from Sarasota, dubbed the “right-wing capital” of the country last year by Sarasota Magazine, for the flood of far-right figures relocating there. They included former Trump national security advisor and QAnon hero General Michael Flynn; Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk; and Publix grocery chain heiress Julie Fancelli, who helped bankroll both the January 6 rallies and Moms for Liberty. Then there’s the Hollow, a 10-acre wedding venue/shooting range/children’s playland that has become the center of a far-right network led by Flynn, targeting local institutions from the county GOP to a local hospital to the district’s public schools.
Over the last three years, the school district has experienced waves of chaotic unrest, beginning in mid-2020. That August, amid the tumult of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election, Tom Edwards, a silver-haired former New York businessman, won an upset race for school board on a platform of public health precautions and fighting school privatization. Already that year, two sitting board members had left the Republican Party in disgust over its far-right shift. The election of Edwards — a self-described moderate Democrat who’d moved to Sarasota shortly after selling his second business and had quickly grown restless with retirement — meant the board suddenly had a 3-2 moderate majority.
The day before the board next met, Bridget Ziegler — originally appointed to her position by then Governor Rick Scott in 2014 — posted to Facebook an educational cartoon about BLM, created by a company whose products the district licensed. Although the video was never shown in Sarasota classes, Ziegler’s post — ending with the admonition, “Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate” — triggered a movement. The following day, and for months to come, the board meeting was packed with angry speakers, including local Proud Boys, charging the district was indoctrinating children.
“They were vicious,” recalled Nora Mitchell, now a senior at Booker High, Sarasota’s most racially diverse high school, who spoke at her first board meeting during the controversy when she was just 15. Afterward, she said, she was followed into the parking lot, with one man demanding to know whether she considered him racist because he was white and a woman calling her a Marxist. Online, conservative activists argued that she couldn’t have written the speech herself.
“The insinuation,” said Mitchell, “was that I’m Black, I go to Booker, so obviously I’m some sort of plant for my white teachers.” (This August, Mitchell leaves for Harvard too.)
That battle “was the first, pre-CRT thing, before that became a buzzword,” said Carol Lerner, a retired public school social worker and researcher who cofounded the progressive advocacy group Support Our Schools. “That’s how the whole thing started nationwide.”
Last year, when Ziegler was up for reelection and two other board members were terming out, she ran as a unified slate with former school resource officer Tim Enos and retired district employee Robyn Marinelli. The candidates drew support from both DeSantis’s administration — which unprecedentedly endorsed dozens of school board candidates across the state — and local members of the far-right. A PAC partially funded by The Hollow’s owner campaigned for the “ZEM” slate (a shorthand for the candidates’ surnames) by driving a mobile billboard around the county, calling one of their opponents a “LIAR” and “BABY KILLER” because she’d once worked for Planned Parenthood. Proud Boys hoisted ZEM signs on county streets and a mailer was sent out, castigating the liberal candidates as “BLM/PSL [Party of Socialism and Liberation]/ANTIFA RIOTERS, PLANNED PARENTHOOD BABY KILLERS, [who] WANT GROOMING AND PORNOGRAPHY IN OUR SCHOOLS.” (Enos and Marinelli did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
“I got, of course, that I’m BLM, I’m PSL, I’m an Antifa rioter,” said then candidate Dawnyelle Singleton, a Sarasota native who’d worked for years as administrator of a boys’ charter school that primarily serves Black and Latino students. If she’d won her race against Ziegler, she’d have become the first-ever Black school board member in the district. When then Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist offered her and the other liberal candidates his endorsement, they refused, reasoning that such an alignment “is not getting the politics out of school.” But in right-wing online circles, she and the other candidates were attacked — including by the husband of the school board’s other conservative member, Karen Rose. He shared a meme of her and the other candidates as the Three Stooges and called Singleton “a incompetent” “childless secretary.” (Rose did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Although Tom Edwards wasn’t up for reelection, Christian Ziegler shared a video of him at a public event reassuring teachers that there were still so-called “woke” school board members “working from the inside” to protect them. After the video climbed from Twitter to Fox News, Edwards was besieged with slurs like “groomer.”
Even some Republicans seemed embarrassed by the excesses of the campaign. The local GOP disavowed the pro-ZEM PAC to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and two of the conservative candidates — Enos and Marinelli — denounced its mobile billboards. Marinelli was compelled to withdraw from a campaign event hosted by a member of the Proud Boys. But after DeSantis held an election-eve rally for ZEM, all three won; at the victory party, Ziegler and Marinelli were photographed alongside the activists who’d brought them there, Proud Boys and all.
The new board, with Ziegler as chair, was seated just before Thanksgiving. Within its first 10 minutes of business, Rose called for a special meeting to discuss firing district Superintendent Brennan Asplen. Although, as he’d later declare, he was a conservative Republican, Asplen had become a target for agreeing to implement the previous board’s mask mandate and was subsequently declared a “woke” puppet of “LGBT groups.” (Asplen declined an interview request.) When the meeting was held the following week, members of the public spoke for nearly three hours, overwhelmingly demanding to keep Asplen on. An anonymous survey conducted by the district teachers’ union found that more than 97 percent of staff wanted him to stay. But the board still voted, 4-1, to let him go. Then they asked his wife, who also worked in the district, to resign as well.
“I’m telling you right now, whether I’m here or not, you have to get the politics out of this school district,” Asplen warned.
But since then, nearly every board meeting has brought a new battle. In early February, the board held a hearing to ban a book about antiracism (ultimately voting to keep the book but requiring parental permission before students can check it out). Two weeks later, it revised a safety policy enacted after the Parkland shooting to allow parents to walk their children into class — something 93 percent of local teachers’ union members opposed, with some suspecting the demand was a means for conservative parents to inspect classrooms for evidence of liberal politics. On March 7, the board banned a character education program, Character Strong, that had come under fire for containing elements of “social emotional learning” (SEL), which conservatives have declared a “Trojan horse” for CRT.
The same day, during public comment, a former member of Moms for Liberty called Edwards an “LGBTQ groomer.” She went on to ask whether a background check was performed before he’d recently read to a third grade class and demanded the district send letters to all those students’ parents, telling them Edwards had participated in “LGBTQ grooming events” (by which she meant his attendance at a conference for student Gay-Straight Alliance clubs). She also called on DeSantis to unseat Edwards as “a threat to the innocence of our children and the rule of law in Florida.” When a local right-wing Facebook page posted a poll on whether DeSantis should in fact remove Edwards, Robyn Marinelli voted yes, as did Ziegler’s and Rose’s husbands. (Marinelli appears to have since rescinded her vote.)
Two weeks later, on March 21, Ziegler proposed that Character Strong be replaced by a character training program from Vermilion Education, a three-month-old consultancy business founded by a former Hillsdale College staffer, Jordan Adams, who in 2022 was hired by Florida’s Department of Education to scour math textbooks for CRT and SEL. (Adams says his company has no formal relationship with Hillsdale.) The week after that, Ziegler proposed hiring Vermilion for two consulting projects, one of indefinite duration and expense. They included advising the school system on hiring decisions and undertaking a sweeping “District Improvement Study” to review all the district’s curricula, teacher training programs, union contracts and policies.
“We say that Sarasota is Florida’s underground lab, and we’re its non-consenting lab rats.”
Zander Moricz, 2022 graduate of Pine View High School, Sarasota County, Florida
The scope of the contracts, charged Support Our Schools, was “so broad and expansive, it in effect turns over the keys to the school district to the company.”
But that, they said, was the point. In 2021, when the district was at war with itself over masking, Carol Lerner, Lisa Schurr and a handful of other local parents and educators founded Support Our Schools to counter the conservative education movement. At first, Schurr told me, they’d been baffled “that anybody could have an issue with wearing a mask to protect the lives of other people. But we quickly learned that these issues were in many ways a distraction, and the real issue is the destruction through privatization of public education.”
Indeed, the same day Edwards was verbally attacked in Sarasota, five hours north, in Tallahassee, the state opened its legislative session with an array of new bills to transform public education further still: to expand “Don’t Say Gay” through 12th grade, decertify teachers’ unions, make school board races partisan, and much more. Then there was the big one: HB1, a universal “school choice” proposal quickly passed into law that made all Florida families eligible for $8,000 vouchers, no matter their income or whether their children had ever attended public school. Public education advocates warned the bill would cost anywhere from $2 to 4 billion per year — enough to bankrupt the system.
“It’s been an incremental and long game,” said Edwards when we met for breakfast two days later, just after he’d read a book about a polar bear to another third grade class. “They used ‘parental rights’ to get people to the polls to vote their agenda, and it creates chaos at public schools. And that chaos creates doubt in the efficacy of public education. So it’s a win-win: they got people to the polls and they get to destroy the good faith in public education.”
“Trying to get a job as a teacher in Sarasota County used to be impossible,” said Theoni Soublis, a teacher education professor at the University of Tampa who grew up in and started her own career in Sarasota’s public schools. “That’s why we pay the taxes we pay — because our schools are so good.” But these days, she said, Sarasota principals call her all the time, searching for new staff.
Across the state, low teacher pay and the constant attacks on educators have helped create some 5,300 teacher vacancies — an increase of nearly 140 percent since DeSantis took office, and the worst school staffing crisis the state’s ever seen. Sarasota, with some 120 teacher vacancies, is no longer exempt from those trends. “We’ve seen a deterioration of the desire to stay in Sarasota schools,” said Soublis, “and I would attribute that directly to the chaos that’s been created in our community.” (In an email, Kelsey Whealy, media relations specialist for the Sarasota district, wrote that “All school districts across the country have been impacted by the national teacher shortage,” and that “Sarasota County Schools remains one of our area’s leading employers.”)
When I met with Lerner and Schurr at a restaurant near the school district offices, a woman eating at the next table interjected to say that she, an assistant principal in the district, was hoping to leave herself, sending out résumés anywhere but Sarasota County. At another board meeting in March, Mary Holmes, a 30-year veteran teacher, declared she was there “to discuss S.H.I.T.: Sarasota Helicopter parents Interfering with Teaching.” Citing the recent controversy over some parents’ demand to walk their children to class, Holmes said the board’s approval had just created more anxiety among her special education students. “Just what were you hoping for?” she asked. “That teachers would be caught teaching an indoctrination pledge?” In April, a “Climate Survey” conducted by the district’s teachers’ union found that 83 percent of teachers in Sarasota County felt unsupported by the current school board majority, and nearly 68 percent feared retaliation if they complained.
Holmes wasn’t alone. “We’ve had a complete right-wing takeover and it’s been very well-orchestrated,” said Liz Ballard, a history teacher at Pine View who is a lesbian and was the first person Zander Moricz came out to. “They have all these pressure talking points — like ‘groomer,’ ‘pedophiles,’ CRT — to package a message that teachers are doing these bad things. And it worked. It got people to the polls and they voted in these right-wing Christians who think Hillsdale College is what we ought to be following.”
“It scares me to think that we’re going backwards 50 years or more. Public education is going to cease.”
Gail Foreman, history teacher, Booker High School, Sarasota County, Florida
When we spoke in March, Ballard’s class had just concluded a unit on early US history, including, she said, “all our dark history.” Sometimes, she said, she’ll introduce a topic by joking to her students about the constraints she’s working under: “This will probably get me fired, but slavery was bad. It happened, it was bad.” Some students laugh, others seem concerned; some, she can tell, are following what’s going on in their district. When administrators alerted Pine View teachers, two days after the board banned Character Strong, that they could also no longer use videos from Flocabulary — a gentle, corny series of educational rap videos — Ballard said her students were dismayed.
More hurtful to her is knowing that some of their parents voted for this. “That’s the thing that’s most upsetting: that smart people are falling for stupid lies, letting Libs of TikTok dictate the narrative,” Ballard said. “I keep saying I’m going to stick it out and fight the good fight, that I need to model not letting the bullies win. Or at least go down swinging, if that’s what I want the next generation to do.”
Across the district, at Booker High School — which before desegregation finally came to Sarasota, was a proud Black institution — history teacher Gail Foreman is equally frustrated.
“We have high school kids that are working 40 hours a week. There are needs in our district that our board’s not willing to examine, because they’re too busy worrying about ‘Is this woke?’” Foreman said.
Foreman and her wife were the first lesbian couple married in Sarasota County in 2015, soon after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. For years, LGBTQ+ students knew they could talk to her. But since last year, those conversations have become tortured, she said. In one recent class, one of her students started crying, and asked Foreman to step outside. She’d just been dumped by her first girlfriend, in the middle of the school day, via text.
“I wanted so badly to say to her, ‘It’s ok, honey, there’s going to be others.’ But I can’t. So I just stood there and listened until finally she said, ‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’” Foreman recalled. “I said ‘I can’t. I will violate the parents’ rights law if I do.’”
Another district teacher, who asked not to use her name because, like many younger educators in Florida, she’s employed on a year-to-year contract, said the same law had recently dissuaded her from buying books for her classroom library since they’d all have to be vetted by a “media specialist” — a process that could take months. Likewise, when she’d recently had a class-planning idea to pair the novel students were reading — Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — with clips from “Edward Scissorhands,” she’d remembered the law’s dictate that anything not on a class syllabus requires parental permission. Any student who couldn’t get their slip signed — often because their parents work nights — would have to wait in the hall. She abandoned the idea.
Foreman also instructs college-level sociology and psychology classes at Booker, but perhaps not for long. Earlier this year she and Booker’s coordinator for college-level classes decided not to offer her sociology course next year, because it includes a unit discussing non-traditional families that seems almost certain to invite complaints that the lessons violate Florida’s new laws. “The coordinator and I had a hard conversation about the curriculum and decided we couldn’t take the chance,” said Foreman. (Whealy, the district spokesperson, said that a final decision has not yet been made about whether or not the class will be offered next year.)
The loss of a college-credit course at Booker — where more than half the student body is Black or Latino — hurts on multiple levels, Foreman said. In the immediate term, it removes an option for college-bound students to save thousands of dollars in future tuition. Further out, the loss of those classes at Booker — which over the past decade had managed to attract a number of wealthier, whiter students with a performing arts program and law academy — could have cascading effects, driving away the families who now opt into the school.
“That school will end up an all-Black school,” Foreman predicted — a reversion to the mid-1960s state of affairs before integration. Then, as historian Daniel Campbell has written, Sarasota underwent a similar convulsion, as a far-right faction aligned with the John Birch Society declared there was a left-wing conspiracy to infiltrate county schools. District and school administrators, as well as teachers, were accused of being communists or homosexuals. One couple snuck into a school’s bathrooms to “collect evidence” about school staff and a superintendent who followed federal desegregation orders was forced to resign. In 1966, a former state legislator declared the right-wing groups had made Sarasota infamous “as a hate center.”
“It scares me to think that we’re going backwards 50 years or more,” Foreman said. Combined with the impact of the school voucher bill HB1, she warned, “Public education is going to cease.” She worried that more elite schools in the district, like Pine View — which opened amid integration with a bevy of admittance requirements that kept Black students out — would be transformed into private institutions. The rest would revert to de facto segregation. “You’re going to have the haves and the have-nots,” she said. “If you are a parent and can afford private school, your kids will get educated. If you can’t, your kids aren’t going to be; they’re going to be the servants.”
Everyone knew someone who had left, or was planning to. Lisa Schurr knew of dozens. One was a fellow Support Our Schools cofounder, who recently became one of four Sarasota women who fled the county’s political environment for Maine.
“I came here for the culture, but it became the culture wars,” said Robin Taub Williams, founder of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota, who said that at age 71, she’d never personally witnessed antisemitism until the last year. But now, she said, she’s had leaflets left in her driveway by the “Goyim Defense League” and had a bare-chested stranger knock on the door and tell her partner, “I didn’t know we had any Jews left in the neighborhood.”
“People are leaving Sarasota. We’re all discussing it,” said Carol Lerner. “I don’t want to. I’m here for the fight. But I’m developing some contingency plans.”
In Brevard County — another district that boasts a Moms for Liberty cofounder and which also ousted its superintendent after flipping its school board last fall — so many people are leaving that a progressive public health group recently had to disband. This April, the LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Florida issued a travel advisory, warning that “Florida may not be a safe place to visit or take up residence.”
Republicans responded with glee. When The Wall Street Journal published a story about Florida’s hard-right “shift,” quoting a Democrat who said “It feels like the earth is caving in and we can’t breathe,” Christian Ziegler tweeted, “LOVE TO HEAR IT.” After a recent academic survey found that more than half of LGBTQ+ parents were considering leaving Florida, and nearly a fifth were already working to do so, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw shared the news on Twitter with an emoji of a hand waving goodbye. In May, when the NAACP issued its own travel advisory about Florida (following yet another from the League of United Latin American Citizens), Christian Ziegler suggested the group’s chairman should leave the state.
“I’m not scared of these people. But I’m scared for the future of this college, and Florida, and the country, in ways that I don’t think people who aren’t in Florida understand.”
Madi Markham, a 2023 graduate of New College, Sarasota County, Florida
Partly the reason for the exodus was the sense of continual bombardment. “DeSantis seems to have this media strategy where he’s in the headlines all the time, every single day,” said Liv Coleman, a political science professor at the University of Tampa who researches the right wing. “It’s relentless,” she continued, like the chaotic news cycle of the Trump years, when every morning people had to wonder what new bombshell would land that day. “It’s like that all over again in Florida. But it affects our lives more deeply, because this is state government, these are our schools.”
“It’s everything, everywhere, all at once,” said former Sarasota school board chair Jane Goodwin, who, before terming out last year, had opposed new policies to out LGBTQ+ students to their parents and cut off public commenters who attacked school board members personally. Since last November, she said, she has watched the new board systematically dismantle everything she’d done.
“It feels like there’s a million things happening all the time, and there’s only so much you can do,” agreed Madi Markham, a 2023 graduate of New College, who grew up in the area, and felt the district and her college were being dragged along parallel tracks. By early March, after DeSantis’s appointees fired New College’s president, its interim chief, former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran, disbanded the school’s diversity office, fired its head, and proposed that right-wing think tanks establish academic centers on campus. In April, Bridget Ziegler was named to the college’s presidential selection committee. And in May, when DeSantis signed new legislation banning funding for diversity programs at all state universities, he did so at New College.
The sense of onslaught was intentional. In February, a website run by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie argued that DeSantis and his New College appointee Christopher Rufo were “putting on a masterclass” of battle strategy by overwhelming their opponents with the sheer number and speed of simultaneous attacks. “It’s all hitting, all at once.”
“I’m not scared of these people,” Markham said. “But I’m scared for the future of this college, and Florida, and the country, in ways that I don’t think people who aren’t in Florida understand.”
At the school board, Edwards said Sarasota’s status as “ground zero” for the education wars was impeding the search for a new superintendent. In December, shortly after Brennan Asplen was forced out, Edwards said he’d called seven or eight community leaders, to see if any could serve in an interim role, but was roundly “shot down.” One person said they could do it, but didn’t want their family “persecuted,” Edwards recalled. In March, as the board interviewed head-hunting firms to lead its superintendent search, one company acknowledged that Sarasota’s reputation would scare some applicants away.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s three or four or five states in the country where there’s been more turnover than other states, and Florida is one of them,” Steve Joel, of the executive recruitment firm McPherson & Jacobson, told the board. Good superintendents want to know they’d “have a fighting chance to be successful,” Joel said. If they didn’t think that was possible, they wouldn’t apply.
“Here’s how fascism works: we go after the marginalized, we start banning books and we go after education,” Edwards told me. “I’m not afraid to use the word fascism, because I’m watching it. I’m getting the brunt of it. And the bullying the governor is doing silences people, so even parents outraged about what’s happening stay silent, because they’re afraid there’s going to be retaliation from the school board to their child.”
“The public has got to wake up and pay attention,” he continued. “I’m an elected official and I’m not afraid to fight. But to do that I need support from my community, and in numbers.”
Increasingly, say Lerner and Schurr, the public is answering. On March 21, the next school board meeting after Edwards was called a “groomer,” the room was flooded with public commenters, including a contingent of clergy, there to denounce the “vile” spectacle of the last meeting. Numerous white-haired retirees spoke to the importance of teaching Black history or accepting gender diversity. Forty minutes into public comment, when another conservative school board regular started talking about “what Tom wants to do to our children,” Edwards walked out of the building. Most of the audience applauded, and a number followed him outside.
“We’ve been saying all along these are red herrings, it’s subterfuge, it’s all the privatization of public education,” said Schurr. “A lot of people thought, ‘You’re crazy.’” But now, when she speaks on panels, even to nonpartisan groups, the destruction of public education always comes up.
“I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a while,” said Lerner, “because I see people understanding what’s going on.”
On April 18, before another school board meeting, a series of groups including the teachers’ union, Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, and a student coalition rallied to protest the attacks on Edwards, censorship, and the proposal to let Vermilion Education overhaul the district. More than 70 people signed up to speak, and public comment lasted for four hours. When the board voted, two of the new conservative board members, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli, sided with Edwards, blocking the contracts (although Marinelli signaled that she might be open to a different, more narrowly-defined contract with the company). Sarasota Herald-Tribune education reporter Steven Walker tweeted that it was “one of the first times I’ve been genuinely shocked in my year on this beat.”
“Are people waking up now? Are people being energized?” asked Soublis. “Is it enough?”
On April 21, two simultaneous events punctuated that question: Ziegler welcomed some 300 conservative education activists to the inaugural “Learn Right” training summit of the Leadership Institute’s new Sarasota headquarters, and students across the state joined a massive walkout in protest of Florida’s education policies, led in part by Zander Moricz’s nonprofit. But over the following weeks, three new books were targeted for book bans in the district. Elsewhere in the state, DeSantis’s administration moved to strip another superintendent’s educator certificate after a complaint from Moms for Liberty, and a fifth grade teacher was placed under investigation by the Department of Education for showing a Disney movie with an LGBTQ+ character to her class.
In April, a “Climate Survey” conducted by the district’s teachers’ union found that 83 percent of teachers in Sarasota County felt unsupported by the current school board majority, and nearly 68 percent feared retaliation if they complained.
“I unfortunately am less optimistic about the ability to push back against this,” said Coleman. “Sometimes things have to break before people really pay attention.” In the late 1960s, Sarasota’s segregation-era school fever — which included “hit lists” of teachers to be fired and charges that right-wing activists were trying to learn the religious affiliation of every student in the district — only broke when “moderate Republicans got so sick of it that they joined forces with liberals,” she continued. But things could be bad for a while. “I just wonder at what point do people say ‘enough’?”
Back on March 7, Moricz — who’d taken a gap semester from Harvard to attend to his growing nonprofit — was at the school board when Edwards was attacked. He got up to speak, addressing his comments to Tom. “It probably feels very overwhelming to be in the minority, and it probably feels like you can’t do anything,” he said. “But the position you’re in is more important than any position they’re in politically.” Edwards had to keep fighting, Moricz said, even though things would get “so much worse.”
What he meant, Moricz later explained when we met near his alma mater, was that “Anyone right now who is being bullied by Ron DeSantis has to be an example for future victims.”
“Tom has to survive this so that other people know they can survive this,” he continued. “And if we know we can survive this, more people will be brave to stand up.”
It was also a declaration that Florida wasn’t yet gone. “The trick of the culture war is to make people feel the fight is already lost,” Moricz said, “so that in one or two years, conservatives will genuinely win the fight. Right now, that fight has not been won. They are simply claiming victory.”
This story about Sarasota County was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.