The first day of school in Florida is less than two weeks away, but officials are still embroiled in confusion and uncertainty over the meaning of a series of new laws championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) . The measures — aimed at eliminating what DeSantis calls “woke ideology” in public schools — have parents, teachers and students scrambling to figure out how to keep up with them and also avoid being targeted by newly empowered to sue school boards.
Florida’s culture war is mostly taking place in schools. The DeSantis administration has decried teachings on race, suggested civic instruction that downplays historic separation of church and state, tells school districts to ignore federal government advice that guarantees civil rights protections for LGBTQ people students and on Wednesday claimed elementary school children were being told they were the wrong gender.
“This is what is happening in our country. Anyone who tells you it’s not happening is lying to you,” DeSantis said during a press conference.
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Its Department of Education released a memorandum the next day, advising school districts to ignore tips of the Biden administration that says federal law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
The memo from Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said the Biden administration’s rules “should not be treated as applicable law.” Diaz’s memo also says schools can ignore suggestions from the Florida Department of Agriculture Commission that they should publish “And justice for all” USDA posters in schools. The posters explain anti-discrimination laws. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in the DeSantis cabinet and a gubernatorial candidate, said schools should display the posters. But Diaz said “it could create a conflict with Florida law.”
The result of all these conflicting instructions is confusion and fear, teachers say.
In Palm Beach County, a teacher changed her plans for a lesson on Sally Ride – America’s first woman to fly in space – to omit the fact that Ride was a lesbian because she didn’t know how to explain it without running into any new laws, according to Michael Woods, a specialist teacher there who knows the instructor.
Some Orange County teachers say they don’t know if it’s safe to bring photos of their same-sex spouses. The school district told them the photos were okay, but said they shouldn’t talk about partners because “it could be considered classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to district spokesman Michael Ollendorff. Teachers in grades K-3 have also been warned against wearing clothing that could spark similar discussions.
“The vagueness of these laws does exactly what they were supposed to do. It silences teachers,” said Woods, who is also a member of the Classroom Teachers Association. “I grew up with people coming to me and worrying about what they might say.”
Florida already faces a severe teacher shortage, with 9,000 teachers open and unfilled staff positions at the start of the new school year, said Andy Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. The shortage is serious enough that DeSantis recently signed a right which allows military veterans to teach without the required certificate or a four-year college degree.
Spar said new Florida laws have made the profession less attractive to experienced teachers and new grads. A recent national investigation by the American Federation of Teachers revealed that nearly 80% of teachers are dissatisfied with their job.
“And here in Florida it’s worse,” Spar said. “The low pay, the lack of respect, the constant meanness, it all has consequences.”
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Most Florida public school teachers work under one-year contracts that can be canceled without cause.
Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz declined a request for an interview, but his office said the department provided tips to schools districts on how to keep up with the new laws. The councils, however, mostly use the language of the laws, which teachers say is too vague.
DeSantis says the laws are popular with parents. They passed easily through the Republican-led legislature. “Government should never take the place of a parent,” President Chris Sprows said when DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Bill into law. “We take a strong stand in Florida for parents when we say teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation has no place in the classroom where 5 and 6 year olds are learning. “
The Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, is the provision that prohibits classroom instruction on gender issues from kindergarten through grade 3 and states that lessons must be ‘age appropriate’ thereafter. Even before the law was passed, these issues weren’t taught in the early grades in Florida, Spar said.
In defend A lawsuit in federal court filed against the state in March by parents, students and several interest groups, Florida attorneys said teachers can still discuss these issues with students. A second court case was filed in July.
“Far from prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, the legislation expressly permits age- and developmentally-appropriate education on these topics,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “In accordance with this modest limitation, the law prohibits classroom teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity for younger children, neutrally allowing all parents, regardless of their opinion, to introduce these sensitive subjects to their children as they see fit.”
The state Department of Education has yet to define what “developmentally appropriate” means in the context of the new law.
Much of the consternation around the laws is about the books. In Palm Beach County, teachers were order remove books from classroom libraries that are not “compliant” and hide them “in a classroom closet” or somewhere else where students cannot see them. Woods, who has taught there for 30 years, said some of his fellow teachers simply decided not to bring any books at all.
Brevard County teachers have been asked to “slow down” the addition of books to their classroom libraries.
“We kind of asked teachers to take a break on this,” said Brevard County Schools spokesman Russell Bruhn. He said the district’s media specialists are “reviewing headlines as best they can to ensure that none of the headlines violate the new law.”
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The state isn’t ready to issue rules on books in schools until January. The stream tips “preserves parents’ right to make decisions about the materials their children are exposed to at school.” A process of ranking, selection and elimination of titles is underway, and schools will be required to post a list of all reading materials available to students online.
“A lot of this is trying to get clarification and guidance from the state,” Bruhn said.
The Miami-Dade County School Board did not want to wait for state rules. After initially endorsing “Comprehensive Health Competencies” for middle and upper health classes in April, members changed their minds.
A long-standing rule allows parents to refuse to allow their children to attend sex education classes, but opponents have said that is not enough. One said showing the book to students would be “illegal in the state of Florida.”
“If you pass this, in the end, the country, the state and your community will all see you as groomers,” Lourdes Galban told the board, echoing a claim used by some conservative groups who sneer. opposed to sex education.
After school board staff said it would take up to eight months to find and review another textbook on the subject, board president Perla Tabares Hantman reversed her vote and approved the new book.
This fight for sex education in the state’s largest school district has alarmed health professionals, who say public opinion surveys show strong support for sex education. Florida has the third highest rate of new HIV infections in the nation according at the CDC and is class 23rd for teenage pregnancies.
“Florida is not a state that does a top-notch job in terms of sex education,” said Ellen Daley, a professor and associate dean at the University of South Florida who specializes in women’s health and sexual health. ‘sex education. “Parents are generally positive about it, but now we see the system going back in time to when these things were controversial. It’s really scary.
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