Parents and community members could soon have an enhanced role in helping pick books in schools, under legislation approved Thursday that comes as a growing number of titles are under fire in school board meetings around the state and country.
The Florida Department of Education would also be required to compile a list of instructional materials that Florida schools have barred or removed as a result of an objection and share it with districts so they can use it to make decisions.
The combined effects, proponents say, will allow communities to know exactly what books and materials students have access to at school. However, educators and Democratic state lawmakers are concerned that the state might be empowering activists to ban books, a move they worry could cut student access to books that other parents may deem important.
The proposal now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
While the legislative effort is pitched as one about transparency, Miami-Dade County School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon III says the bill will only “affirm a false narrative that there’s a lack of engagement and access for parents.”
In Miami-Dade, schools already have a platform for parents to weigh in on instructional materials and matters related to their child’s education, he said.
“When you look at the substance of what these bills are doing, they appear to be posturing to a certain sector of parents,” Gallon said. “Many [bills] appear to be redundant and appear to be a strategy to amplify a call for parental engagement that may be outside the scope of education.”
In recent months, parents and community members have already been mobilizing across Florida and the nation on the issue. Conservative groups in particular, have been sharing spreadsheets of contentious book titles on Facebook, and attending school board meetings to read aloud passages from books they claim to be inappropriate for school-aged students and have called on officials to remove certain titles from libraries.
Those efforts have been amplified by organizations such as Moms for Liberty, a parents rights organization founded in December 2020 that has marshaled parents across the country on several hot-button education issues.
Their footprint has ballooned in the last year, and organizers have made their presence known to state lawmakers by hosting events outside the Capitol during the legislative session and to conservative activists by sharing stacks of books they find objectionable at a booth during this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
At CPAC, Moms for Liberty featured several books it found objectionable. They included books that covered “explorations of sexual orientation & gender identity,” “racial polarization,” and “anti-police” sentiments, as well as a book titled “Call Me Max,” about a transgender boy, and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” Morrison’s first novel is about an 11-year-old Black girl who prays her eyes would turn blue so people would think she’s beautiful like the blond-haired, blue-eyed children in her town.
Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the organization, says the group is not pushing to ban or limit books. She says parents are advocating for a “rating system” for books, similar to other media.
“We’re not trying to ban books,” Justice said. “They can be at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or the public library. We just want to make sure the materials in the [school] libraries are age appropriate.”
In the name of ‘parental rights’
The education proposal is part of a broader “parental rights” effort led by Republicans that has pushed Florida deeper into the nation’s culture wars. Other legislation that has been sent to the governor included restricting instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools and allowing parents to sue districts if they believe their child is being taught about those subjects in a way that is not age appropriate.
Florida lawmakers have also approved legislation that would prohibit teachers from teaching students that an individual is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The totality of those bills has some Democratic state lawmakers concerned about the message the Legislature is sending to Floridians.
“My concern is that bills like this and others have awakened a segment of our society that feels comfortable calling LGBTQ people like myself pedophiles, which is the oldest anti-gay trope in the book,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D- Orlando.
Smith said he is worried homophobic people might be empowered to challenge books about gender identity.
“They feel that by making objections to book content that included LGBTQ people, no matter how unreasonable and homophobic and transphobic that their objection is, that this Legislature and this governor has their back.”
The effort to get parents more involved in the book-selection process in schools is championed by Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who also is the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Although the bill aims to give parents and community members more input on the district’s book-selection process, Gruters said school officials will ultimately have the last say on what is on the shelves.
“I have confidence in our elected officials at the local level to make the right decisions,” Gruters said.
School board term limits OK’d
Under the same proposal, Gruters wants to impose 12-year term limits on school board members.
When why Gruters was proposing school board term limits while saying he has “asked confidence in our elected officials,” he laughed. Then, he said it is because it “encourages fresh ideas.”
Shortening the amount of time school board members can serve is a popular issue among conservatives, Gruters said in an interview Thursday. House lawmakers wanted eight years, but the Senate voted for 12 years.
“I am getting huge pushback from the right. They are calling me a RINO [Republican In Name Only] and all this other stuff,” Gruters said. “But at the end of the day, when I look at 12 years, I look at it as progress.”
State Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said the House would have liked to keep it at eight years, but with little time left in the legislative session, he agreed to compromise with the Senate.
“For the first time in the history of this Legislature we now have our senators agreeing with us on term limits for local school boards — and I will take it,” Garrison said.
The process of challenging books
Florida’s school districts are responsible for the instructional materials and books that are in the classroom and school libraries. The selection of those materials must include consideration of the age of the student who would have access to those materials, and the educational purpose of those materials.
Districts also have a process in place by which a parent or resident of the county may object to specific materials.
The bill would not change those practices. But it would require school districts to include parents in committees that meet to decide what recommendations should be made to the school board about the “ranking, eliminating, or selecting” of instructional materials.
School districts would also be required to post on their website a searchable list of all the instructional materials they have to offer students. School superintendents would also need to identify any materials that received an objection and the grade-level and course for which a removed or discontinued material was used.
The Florida Department of Education would publish and update a list of those materials, and distribute them to school districts so they can use it to consider when making decisions about instructional materials.
I see [the requirement] as a reporting mechanism. I think it’s [state officials] trying to get oversight on an area where they didn’t have any,” Justice said. “I wouldn’t speculate that parents are going to go through the DOE website to find the list and use it.”
While proponents say the bill is all about transparency, some Democratic state lawmakers were more wary about the intentions.
Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, worried the list may be used as a “blueprint” to ban books. Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, echoed those concerns.
Stephen Backs, a history and social studies teacher at Hialeah Gardens High School, said the notion that teachers are using materials that are inappropriate for students is insulting. As a 27-year educator, he understands what’s acceptable and appropriate.
“Parents trust their doctors and attorneys. Trust your teachers. I have children of my own and I’ve [taught] thousands of students,” he said. “Realize teachers are professionals. We’re not here to take sides. We’re here to teach your children, not just so they learn, but how to learn.”
Thomas Fiori, a US history teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School and parent of two elementary-aged students in Miami-Dade schools, said the effort to remove certain groups of authors or perspectives will only reinforce the idea that a particular viewpoint is superior and another is invalid or not worthy of attention.
“The whole point of education is to provide students with a variety of perspectives and, based on their own principles and morals, determine what their thoughts are,” he said. “Removing authors of color or experiences of those from the LBGTQ+ community, for example, will only serve to ‘reinforce prejudices” against those groups.”
This story was originally published March 10, 2022 6:55 PM.