GOP lawmakers in House are molding FL’s K-12 school system to fit ultraconservative values
About halfway through the 2023 session, Florida House lawmakers are molding the Florida K-12 education system into conservative values, potentially for generations to come.
Contentious education bills were approved Friday by the GOP-dominated House covering a wide range of issues — limiting instruction on LGBTQ+ topics through 8th grade, prohibiting how school employees use certain pronouns, and potentially making local school board races partisan affairs.
In order to become law, those House bills would need approval from the Senate, as well Gov. Ron DeSantis’ approval.
House approves expanded “Don’t Say Gay”
HB 1069 is seen by critics as an extension of legislation from the 2022 session — HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education, derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — but it’s just one of the major education- focused bill that the full House approved Friday.
That day, LGBTQ+ advocates and students rallied in the Florida Capitol building against a swath of legislation that they say target gay and transgender Floridians, including HB 1069.
HB 1069 is sponsored by Rep. Adam Anderson and Rep. Stan McClain. Anderson represents part of Pinellas County. McClain represents areas in Northeast Florida.
“We have a difference of opinions, especially on this topic, but members, I think most parents would agree, conversations about these issues are important, they’re actually critically important. But I think they’ll also agree that things that are this important, should not be outsourced to our government,” Anderson said, defending his controversial bill.
However, the Democratic House members reiterated that the wide-reaching education bill would negatively impact the LGBTQ+ families, students and teachers, should HB 1069 become law.
“I am concerned that this policy before us shames LGBTQ+ identity in ways that we’ve already seen in Florida, and when I thought it couldn’t get worse, this bill seems to make it worse,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orange County in Central Florida.
The legislation allows parents, or even non-parents, greater access to challenge school books and get them removed off of library or classroom shelves for an unknown period of time.
Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Democrat from Brevard, said that there are “no common sense guardrails” on who can challenge books or how many books a single person can challenge, potentially allowing a person who is not even a parent within the school district to remove books for an entire school for an unknown amount of time.
The HB 1069 also places restrictions on how pronouns can be used in public schools, which the Democrats see as targeting transgender students.
Rep. Rita Harris, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, noted that the House would be voting on what’s known in the LGBTQ+ community as Transgender Day of Visibility.
“You might not understand their lived experiences, and you don’t have to, but you don’t have the right to dictate how other people must raise their children and that’s what you’re doing with this bill,” she said in opposition of the measure.
HB 1069 expands a current prohibition on classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity from just kindergarten through third grades to also encompass grades PreK through 8th grades.
In addition, the legislation requires that any materials regarding education on reproductive health be approved by the Florida Department of Education.
Another aspect to the bill is a statewide definition of the word “sex,” which is defined in the legislation as: “means the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role, as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.”
But Republicans, like Rep. Chase Tramont, said that provisions in the bill are “pro-family” and “pro-teacher.” He is a Republican who represents parts of Volusia and Brevard counties.
“It is pro-family because it takes some of the most sensitive and personal issues and discussions and it keeps them in the homes,” Tramont said, “where it is a responsibility of the parent to determine the manner in which and the, frankly, the timing in which that some of these issues and conversation should be taking place.”
“It takes the pressure off of the teachers who are, in many places, are being forced to decide whether or not that they are going to, for the sake of saving their jobs and careers, but decide whether or not they are going to choose to engage in a social war. In a culture war.”
Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, who is a gay women, urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that the bill is “alienating parents and children who have LGBTQ families.” She represents parts Pinellas and Hillsborough.
“It is telling parents who love and support their children that the government knows better than you,” she said. “It is telling teachers if they identify outside of this box that we want to create for them, to go back into the closet, or leave, or stop teaching. It is telling children who identify as LGBTQ, that this legislature’s box is more important than their very life.”
Partisan school board elections
The Florida House passed a bill that would allow Florida voters to make a major decision about their local governments: Should school board elections remain nonpartisan races, or should voters know the party affiliations of each candidate listed on the ballot for local school boards.
HJR 31 would provide Florida voters an opportunity to decide the matter through a ballot initiative that would change the Florida Constitution, or not. If voters approve the matter, then candidates for school board members would be identified as a Democrat, a Republican, another minor party or no-party affiliation during elections.
“Let’s face it: politics has been injected into our schools for quite some time, and not by our choosing,” Rep. Joel Rudman, a Republican who represents parts of Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. “If I could, I would root it out today. But until we can run it out, it is only fair that these officials declare their ideology for the entire world to see that. It is only fair that the citizens of Florida know exactly what they are voting for.”
Social media use in schools
The House approved putting restrictions on what websites a K-12 student can access while in a public school.
If HB 379 becomes law, students may have a harder time getting on popular social media sites like TikTok. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Brad Yeager, a Republican who represents part of Pasco County.
Under this bill, school district computers and other technologies would be prohibited from allowing students to access the popular social media site TikTok and others. The bill also calls for required instruction of internet safety in middle and high school, which must include instruction on the negative effects of social media on mental health, among other topics.
The bill was fully approved by the Legislature, but there was still skepticism about the measure.
“I support the bill,” said Rep. Eskamani from Orange County. “The only thing I’ll flag, for the benefit of the members, is that there’s been a lot of politicization of websites, that, I think, many parents would say are fine, and these are specifically websites that talk about bullying, specifically in the context of LGBTQ+ kids.
“I really hope that parts of this bill are not used in a way to censor access to resources that could be really helpful to kids,” Eskamani said.
Later middle, high school start times
Other impactful and controversial education bills were approved by the House Friday –a restriction on when middle and high school students can start their school day. Florida House lawmakers think middle schools shouldn’t start earlier than 8 a.m. in the morning and high school shouldn’t start earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Other Democrats think that decisions on start times should be a local decision, not state-mandated. But supporters of the bill advocate that students across Florida are not getting enough sleep, which is leading to lower academic achievement and takes a toll on their mental health.
“We have known about the benefits of later start time in schools for years,” said Rep. Fiona McFarland, a Republican who represents part of Sarasota County.
“We have an opportunity to make a big and bold change to improve the learning, the mental health, the physical health, of our students.”
Bill sponsor Rep. John Paul Temple, of Sumter and Hernando counties, argues that the challenges will be worth it in order to help students get more sleep in their schedules.
“Is it going to be easy? No — change never is,” he said.