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Hey Florida Republicans, Fidel Castro would just love your Bright Futures crackdown

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 3/3/2021 Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

Mar. 3—In Florida, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a Republican leader and a fascist.

Or, more to the point, to tell the difference between a GOP lawmaker and something we know all too well in Miami: a freedom-stifling representative of the Cuban government.

Nothing highlights the comparison better than state Republicans' latest bid to ideologically manipulate education by steering students away from a liberal-arts education that might teach them to think critically.

Alarm bells should be going off for every parent in the state, given that Senate Bill 86 would force students to choose only state-sanctioned subjects of study in college — or risk losing their Bright Futures Scholarships.

Florida students are awarded this financial aid based on merit and hard work, paid for by Floridians' investment in the state's lottery. This aid is most accessible to a larger number of students, especially minorities.

Let me spell out exactly what's going on: Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, of Ocala, wants to force your child to choose the course of study he, and if the bill passes — the state — think would be best.

That is s-o-o-o 1960s Fidel.

After all, the infamous dictator's education system did just that: told students and parents what school choices to make. The Cuban state assigned students' careers, and if they wanted to study something else, they were told, "Sorry, no slots open for that." If a student was deemed ideologically unsuited for a career, it was also taken off the table.

We all know the disastrous results of the failed Cuba experiment: engineers driving taxis to make a living; medical workers serving cocktails in hotels for dollars; millions fleeing the country.

As with Florida's proposed crackdown, Cuba's ultimate goal was dogmatic. The Republican-dominated state Legislature has been trying for years to turn Florida colleges and universities into graduation mills for conservatives.

In the minds of people like Baxley, a funeral director by trade, nothing good ever comes from a degree in English literature — or sociology.

He told the Tampa Bay Times that his bachelor's degree in sociology, with a minor in psychology, has helped him better understand people, but it gets you "two bucks and a cup of coffee in most towns."

Yet, he seems to have successfully raised a family and made a good living burying Ocala's dead for five decades.

Baxley argues that his intention with SB86 is to steer students to money-making majors and jobs. He's only responding to the needs of industry, he says. But economic reasons don't make his edict any less of an imposition on personal choice.

Plain and simple, by blacklisting majors, he and the Republicans who back him are messing with the freedom students and their parents have in this country to make their own educational decisions.

Real conservatives working on behalf of smaller government, the bill's backers are not.

But the fascist streak isn't surprising. With each legislative session, state Republican lawmakers' actions take on an uncanny resemblance to Cuba's repressive brand of rule. There's no area of our lives these Republicans don't want to legislate into submission.

During this session, which officially opened Tuesday with Gov. Ron DeSantis' State of the State address, Republicans also will consider — at the behest of the governor — bills to suppress access to public information, make it harder to vote, and stifle free speech with anti-protest laws designed to have a chilling effect on activists.

Baxley is also sponsoring a bill that restricts vote-by-mail requests to one election cycle instead of the current two and requires everyone who voted by mail in November to reapply in 2022. He can dress it up anyway he wants, but it's a move to make sure the high turnout of minorities we saw in 2020 doesn't repeat itself when dog-whistling DeSantis is up for reelection.

All of these measures are major assaults on liberties. Cuba's "Ley 349," which criminalizes artistic expression and activism that deviate from government-established norms, comes to mind.

Given their constant vigilance over Cuba's affairs, you would think that Miami's Republican state lawmakers might be sensitive to having Floridians' rights curtailed.

But, oh, the silence.

It's all galling, but particularly so, with legislators like Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah, who has made a career of funneling state funds to private education in the name of "school choice."

Now, an education bill threatens to cut in half Bright Futures for students who don't pick a major the state finds worthy, and they're OK with sticking it to South Florida's diverse student population if it pleases The Party.

Silence is one way to kill democracy. Another is not knowing what you're voting for and being duped, election after election, by Republicans who spread lies that equate socialism with the Democrats — then foist repressive laws on us.

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