PALM BEACH POST: DeSantis announces $5 million to get more kids into speech, debate

January 31, 2020

An integral element in building a more robust civics education in Florida will be giving more middle and high school students a shot at engaging in the art of speech and debate – both in the classroom and in competition. To that end, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday (January 27) that the state has secured a $5 million grant to help open those doors.

Flanked by students from Omni Middle School in suburban Boca Raton fresh from their first win in public forum debate, DeSantis thanked the Marcus Foundation and billionaire Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, for providing the money in an effort that will extend through the next three years.

DeSantis has proposed the state commit an additional $375,000 to implement this initiative that he boasted will be the first of its kind to expand speech and debate to middle and high school students in all of Florida’s public districts.

The governor said the benefits reach beyond improved civics education.

“We live in an era right now where everyone is kind of buried in their electronic devices and it’s almost as if people engage more in text messaging than just person-to-person contact sometimes,” DeSantis said. “There’s value in having a student be able to stand up and address a group of people or address one person and try to persuade them of a certain position. That is something that really is always going to be important in a society; a device can’t substitute for that.”

The governor has been demanding the state beef up its civics education for at least a year. Last week, he detailed several efforts to do that. Florida is among the few states to have a statewide civics exam, a required course in middle school and elements of civics in other high school courses.

To grow that footprint further, DeSantis unveiled his plans that include embedding civics lessons in classrooms beginning in kindergarten and developing a civic literacy test for high school seniors. These plans await the blessing of Florida’s Board of Education.

Monday, he honed it to speech and debate as a critical niche in civics education. Its proponents statewide have long sought to involve more students in classes and competition that by their nature build on both research and public speaking skills.

“That kind of education is truly transformative,” said Beth Eskin, a high school speech and debate instructor in Orange County and director of the Florida Debate Initiative. “Every individual has a voice, has a story. Speech and debate allows students to explore themselves by exploring their communities and the world.”

The governor’s office pointed to research that indicates “almost 100 percent of debate students attend college.” Those students also become more civically engaged as adults, according to the research.

DeSantis’ office says the effort being dubbed “The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative” also will increase the statewide pass rate on the middle school civics exam from 71 percent to 80 percent.

The classes and competitions span multiple skill sets from debate to dramatic interpretation.

Omni eighth-graders Mia Landau and Sara Meran spent weeks preparing for their first outing, a public forum debate on the pros and cons of “offensive cyber operations.” They didn’t know which side they would be arguing, so they had to be versed and have speeches prepared for both.

Having won their first competition, they are now in the throes of preparing for the next: a debate on imposing economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Both said they joined the debate club in pursuit of getting into the pre-law program at neighboring Spanish River High and perhaps a career in law to follow. While they participate as an extracurricular, some of their opponents have the benefit of speech and debate class.

Pushing such a class into every middle and high school and making competitions available to all is not a cheap endeavor, say the educators on the ground.

Last week’s competition in Palm Beach County cost $12 per student. At Omni, parents were tapped to provide transportation and teacher Daisy Klave was also required to provide two judges (herself and a parent volunteer) or pay another $25.

Of 23 high schools in Palm Beach County, 17 have an active debate program. And roughly half of the county’s middle schools do, according to Paul Gaba, director of speech and debate at Wellington High school and an officer in the countywide forensics league.

“A lot of it is just getting teachers in a position where they can start a program,” said Gaba, who once mapped out a five-year plan to get debate in every middle and high school countywide, but he said the proposal never got traction.

When people ask him the value of such courses and competitions, Gaba points to the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Look what a difference they’ve made on the social and political board. Whether you agree with their message or not, they are getting their voices … heard,” Gaba said.