TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Standing with a group that commemorates victims of communism, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls on Thursday endorsed legislative proposals aimed at exposing public-school students to "victims of other nations' governing philosophies."
"In the classroom, clearly, the textbook isn’t enough. The instruction in the classroom isn’t enough. What our children need to understand what happens to victims of communism, what happened in the Holocaust, is to hear it from survivors," Sprowls told reporters after a news conference on the steps of the Old Capitol.
Sponsored by Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, the proposals (HB 5 and SB 1450) are dubbed the "Portraits In Patriotism Act." The identical bills aim to bolster civics education, in part by directing the Department of Education to curate a video library sharing first-person accounts of people who lived under foreign governments.
"Many people have fled dictatorships in places like Cuba and Venezuela and have found a beacon of light in America and here in Florida," said Zika, who was born in the former Yugoslavia.
Zika’s measure was approved unanimously Thursday by the House Secondary Education & Career Development Subcommittee Thursday, but it faced some questions from Democrats.
Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, told Zika she is a first-generation American and asked whether the bill will address teaching the "dark" parts of U.S. history.
"My issues with civic education is ensuring that civic education is holistic and tells the true story of the American experience. Everything about our American experience is not beautiful. There are things … that are dark, that are traumatizing, and impact us each in different ways. Will those aspects of the American story also be told?" Omphroy asked
Zika, who described himself as an "ethnic Albanian from a Muslim community that was persecuted" in Yugoslavia, told Omphroy and other lawmakers skeptical of his proposal that it was written broadly enough to allow diverse stories.
"We must recognize our dark past, and the way we overcome darkness in any society, anywhere around the world (is) by bringing light. By bringing truth," Zika said.
Others pressed Zika on whether the bill is needed for Florida civics education and whether the information is covered in other public school curriculums.
"Aren’t they going to learn that somewhere else in the curriculum? Why is it necessary in the civic curriculum?" Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, asked.
"We have to teach the civics component, but also teach the darkness of communism as an ideology," Zika responded.
The measure would require courses teaching U.S. government in public schools to include "a comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States."
During the morning news conference Thursday with the non-profit group Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Rodriguez spoke of being part of a family that left Cuba.
"I’m also a victim of communism, even though I was born in the United States of America and I am blessed to be an American citizen. My parents and grandparents fled and left everything they had behind coming in search of freedom," Rodriguez said.
Several Floridians told stories during the news conference of immigrating to the U.S. and later testified to the House panel, warning of what they characterized as horrors brought on by communist and socialist governments.
Gustavo Tefel, a 55-year-old from Nicaragua, told lawmakers he is in America seeking refuge for a second time.
"My son is actually the same age that I was in the 1980s when I had to seek refuge here in this country for the first time. So, somehow we have to break that cycle that keeps repeating itself," Tefel said.