Florida Education Bill Causes National Controversy
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
The Florida Parental Rights in Education Bill has sparked protests nationally. (Lauren Mitchell/Unsplash)
Two weeks after passage in the House, the Florida Senate voted to pass SB 1834, the Parental Rights in Education Bill, on March 8, 2022. The main purpose of the bill is to increase parental participation in school systems, especially with regards to mental and physical health. Section 3, however, which prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, is causing controversy and garnerning national attention.
What is the Parental Rights in Education Bill?
Sponsored by Florida Rep. Joe Harding and Sen. Dennis Baxley, the majority of the bill focuses on parents’ inclusion in the health decisions of students. For example, schools cannot discourage staff from sharing student health information with parents. This is most likely in response to policies in Hillsborough, Broward, and Palm Beach counties that prevented teachers from divulging students’ sexual identities to their parents. It also includes provisions on “well-being questionnaires” and an opt-in option for medical services provided at schools. If parents believe the school to be withholding any information or otherwise violating the bill, they can request the Commissioner of Education to appoint a special magistrate who will investigate and bring charges against the school district if deemed necessary.
Section 3, probably the most controversial part of the bill, states that sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be taught in kindergarten to grade 3, nor can it be taught “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The bill does not specify what is and is not age or developmentally appropriate, but Baxley and Harding have clarified that any discussions of a students sexual orientation would fall under the authority of the bill. However, it is likely that the exact breadth of the bill will be decided in the courts. As Florida Attorney Jane Windsor told PolitiFact, “Anytime a law is vague, there’s going to be litigation.”
The Controversy around Section 3
Because of Section 3’s prohibition of discussions of sexual orientation, the bill has recently been nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics. However, opposition goes back all the way to the bill’s inception. As Carlos G. Smith, a gay Democrat Representative from Florida commented, the bill “sends a terrible message to our youth that there is something wrong with LGBTQ people . . . that we have to be prohibited and censored from the classroom.” Since then, public concern has grown, even garnering the attention of President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, both of whom described the bill as “hateful” while reaffirming their dedication to LGBTQ rights. Teachers across the country have also taken up the fight against the bill. Kentucky’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, joined with over 200 other teachers of the year to “oppose references to LGBTQIA+ people or to their access to care, such as is occurring in Florida.” Even students have protested, flooding committee rooms and chanting “we say gay!” outside of the capitol building. As Florida senator Jason Pizzo said, “we have failed as a legislature if hundreds of kids stand outside screaming for their rights.”
The main criticism of the bill is that it implies being LGBTQ is inappropriate, which Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Presidential cabinet member, fears will cause an increase in cases of LGBTQ suicides. As Willie Carver said, “School is, for many [students], the singular place where they can experience any modicum of freedom to be their authentic self.” With this bill on the horizon, Carver reported already seeing “a lot of heartache and a lot of fear.” Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, similarly argued that the bill solves a “nonexistent problem.” Smith holds that there is nothing inappropriate about sexual orientation curriculum, so the words “age appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” are meaningless.
Proponents of the bill, on the other hand, claim the bill isn’t as bad as critics claim. First of all, they argue that the nickname, “Don’t Say Gay,” is misleading. The bill doesn’t ban words or even casual discussions of gender issues in the classroom; it simply prevents teachers from incorporating it into their formal curriculum. They also argue that in banning sexual orientation teaching from classrooms, such discussions can be left up to parents, who are more finely tuned to their children’s wants, needs, and feelings and thus better equipped to have such intimate conversations. As Sen. Dennis Baxley said in a Fox interview, “Some discussions are for [having] with your parents . . . and I think when you start having sexual-type discussions with children, you’re entering a very dangerous zone.”
The Future of Parental Rights in Education
This bill, of course, is not happening in a vacuum; it’s part of a much larger, national movement to enhance parental participation in education. Since the start of 2022, almost 100 similar measures have been introduced across the country ― from Missouri banning public schools from including certain ideas about race and sex in their curricula to Oklahoma prohibiting public school libraries from holding books on sexuality that a “reasonable parent” would not approve of. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, in his gubernatorial campaign, even rallied behind the slogan “Parents Matter,” an approach quickly picked up by other Republican governors, including Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, Texas’ Greg Abbot, and Florida’s Ron DeSantis. Since signing the Parental Bill of Rights into law in 2021, which prohibited government agencies from interfering with parents’ educational responsibilities, DeSantis has been a vocal supporter of the Parental Rights in Education Bill and is likely to sign it into law as well. If it becomes law, the full extent of the bill will come into effect by June 2022.
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