D.C. watchdog files public records lawsuit against Florida Department of Education

American Oversight wants to know which conservative groups the state consulted as it remakes education in Florida. 

The Turlington Building in Tallahassee, headquarters of the Florida Department of Education.

The Turlington Building in Tallahassee, headquarters of the Florida Department of Education. jlwelsh, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses public records requests and lawsuits as a government watchdog tactic is suing the Florida Department of Education over the DeSantis administration’s “extensive and fast-moving changes to public education in Florida.”  

American Oversight filed suit last week in Leon Circuit Civil court, saying the department “unlawfully refused access to non-exempt public records.” An FDOE spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Among other things, the complaint seeks an immediate hearing as provided under the state’s Sunshine Law and a court order granting access to the records. 

“The DeSantis administration’s efforts to stifle classroom discussion and rewrite history are a grave threat to the education and well-being of hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and parents in Florida,” American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer said in a statement on the group’s website. 

At issue are eight records requests filed last year and earlier this year by American Oversight “seeking Department of Education officials’ and State Board of Education members’ communications with DeSantis’ office and external groups about topics like critical race theory and social-emotional learning, as well as guidance, reports, assessments, and other internal documents related to the decision to ban the (Advanced Placement) African American Studies course.”

Some of the records requested included emails and other communications between state officials and Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist DeSantis appointed to the New College of Florida board of trustees, as well as conservative organizations such as Moms for Liberty, PragerU and The Heritage Foundation. 

Related coverage from last monthChristopher Rufo, New College of Florida sued in public records row

The department’s “pattern of delayed responses to public records requests denies the public the urgent information it needs about how these suppressive measures are being crafted and implemented and about what powerful interests may be behind them, especially as they gain traction in Florida and states across the country,” Sawyer added. 

Mentioning the recent Stop WOKE Act (the enforcement of which is now on hold) and Florida’s rejection of the AP course, the suit says the DeSantis administration “continues to regularly propose controversial changes to Florida's educational system and to promote these proposals across the country, where they are taken as models for impacting the educational systems of numerous states.”

It added that “each of these actions has impacted hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of parents and students across Florida and could impact millions nationwide.” The records requests were filed “to shed light on the reasoning underpinning these decisions and proposals.”  

Court dockets show the department has not yet filed a response to the complaint. The right-leaning Capital Research Center’s “Influence Watch” calls American Oversight a “left-wing judicial activist group” that “focus(es) on filing open records requests targeting Republican interests.”

Contact Jim Rosica at jrosica@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @JimRosicaFL

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