Florida continually makes national headlines for being one of the most contentious battlegrounds for education, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Let’s be clear. The challenges in Florida are real. Many communities remain mired in fights about book bannings, critical race theory, and, most recently, a transgender student bathroom ban. There are widespread school board upheavals across the state; the night before I spoke to residents in Sarasota County this past November, the superintendent was summarily fired.
These debates only stoke the flames of the noisiest, most inflammatory and divisive voices.
Amid the tumult, people have gone into fight or flight. They’re separating themselves into smaller groups or retreating from civic life entirely. They tell us they trust only themselves, God, and those they know personally. We learned these and other findings from our national report, Civic Virus: Why Polarization is a Misdiagnosis.
Conventional wisdom tells us Floridians are too polarized to make progress on education, let alone for people with different views to see and hear one another. But I’m certain there’s a proven way forward. In fact, it’s happening in communities across the state. From them, we can take hope.
Last April, The Patterson Foundation, along with community leaders, began engaging a wide range of DeSoto County residents in 11 community conversations, including one in Spanish. The conversations included students; parents; local business leaders and nonprofit agencies; health care professionals; and clergy.
Instead of getting stuck in divisive political and cultural issues, people focused on their shared aspirations. These diverse groups soon discovered that what they wanted for the community was strikingly similar. They sought more after- and out-of-school activities for students; they wanted to rebuild trust between the community, teachers, and school leaders after the pandemic separated them; and they saw a need to expand access to technology for families and students.
Rather than halt the small steps they were taking when Hurricane Ian struck, they put to work their new relationships and connections to forge local recovery groups to help neighbors through the storm’s aftermath. Indeed, their work wasn’t just about education; it was about strengthening the civic culture of the community. They are now starting to return to their earlier education efforts.
There are other signs of progress. The community has come together to build the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The initiative has won awards for marshaling the capacities and resources of a wide array of groups, organizations, and residents to put all students on a path to grade-level reading. Now, they’re working to address the digital divide that’s left too many students relying on cellphones for internet connections to do their schoolwork. Their goal: to bring low-cost, high-speed broadband service to residents in rural areas.
To make progress, they didn’t need to find 100% consensus — in fact, that’s impossible. But they did need to step forward with others of good faith who want to marshal our collective resources. Who wants to build something positive?
DeSoto County is just one example. At the very same time, we’ve been working with Reading, Pennsylvania; Clarksville, Tennessee; and Lexington, Kentucky, three communities with entirely different demographics and challenges. Each produced its own education agenda. And they’re each moving forward with action.
Some might say that what’s happening in such communities is just a nice civic exercise in public discourse. But let’s be clear: we can’t talk our way out of the current bind. Like in DeSoto, we need to identify and carry out concrete, achievable efforts — starting at the local level — to restore people’s belief that we can get things done together.
All this has implications for how we get Florida and the country moving. And education is just the start. When we reawaken our sense of agency and strengthen our civic fabric together, we can step forward and make progress on issues that matter to people in communities.
There is a reason for frustration, even despair, amid our ugly politics. But we need not surrender to division and fear. Education doesn’t have to be one of society’s defining fault lines. From communities across Florida like DeSoto County, we should take hope that it is possible to forge a new, practical path forward.
Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He’ll be speaking with Florida Civic Advance for a free webinar on Feb. 22.