Florida board OKs rules on controversial new laws for schools

Florida education officials Wednesday approved rules affecting book challenges and restroom use, over passionate objections from speakers who are tired of culture wars and the laws they have inspired.

Some targeted the rule changes in their remarks even though, as State Board of Education chairperson Ben Gibson pointed out, their elected legislators passed the enabling new laws months ago.

For example: A new law allows parents to object to library materials at the school and district levels, and for a state magistrate to step in if the parent takes issue with the way these matters were resolved. Meeting in Naples, the board approved the accompanying rule unanimously.

The speakers, however, blasted the book challenge process in general, saying it is leading to a loss of literature at a time when state leaders are also working to identify and assist struggling readers.

“There are not books in our youngest kids’ classrooms for them to read, for teachers to be able to recognize who has a deficiency,” said Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project.

Under the new rules, a magistrate steps in — at the district’s expense — if a parent who filed a book challenge wants to voice concerns about the way the case was resolved at the district level.

Critics, including several who contend the challenges limit access to LGBTQ+ content, said the rule is one-sided because those who did not want a book removed have no such appeal.

Kate Danehy-Samitz of Women’s Voices of SW Florida, called the rule “fascism with extra steps.” She acknowledged some parents disapprove of particular books and “everyone has a right to have that voice. But now you’re taking that voice away from queer parents like myself and my partner.”

Gibson explained that the magistrate does not re-litigate whether the book is appropriate, but strictly investigates whether the district followed the process outlined in state law.

“It’s ‘do they have a policy and did they follow that policy,’” Gibson said. “It’s a very limited appeal.” And he also noted that if parents are unhappy because a local school board removed a book, “the school boards are elected.”

The discourse continued as the board approved rules governing restroom use at state college buildings, requiring students and staff to use facilities that conform to their assigned gender at birth. The restroom bill and accompanying rules now apply to private schools as well.

The State Board also expanded the definition it will use for what the state law calls “gross immorality and acts of moral turpitude” in matters of teacher discipline. That definition will now include exposing schoolchildren to pornography and adult live performances, said Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr.

“In Florida, we will continue to fight and protect our students and their innocence,” Diaz said.

Critics said the change rests on the definition of pornography, which is open to wide dispute.

“Let’s be clear about actual pornography and what it is not,” said parent Amy Perwien. “It has not been in our schools and it never has been in our schools. There is no Penthouse or ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ or ‘Deep Throat’ or ‘The Joy of Sex’ in our schools. Just because someone doesn’t like a book, that doesn’t make it pornographic.”

Other speakers said that kind of vagueness will have a chilling effect on teachers, causing them to limit book selections even more than they are now.

Maxx Fenning, of the LGBTQ+ organization PRISM, noted that “parts of the legislation have already been enjoined.” In July, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the drag show law after a Hamburger Mary’s restaurant in Orlando sued the state.

The rule change involving moral turpitude passed unanimously.

There were moments of damage control throughout the day.

State Board member Grazie Christie said, “We keep hearing from the concerned public that there’s going to be a wholesale emptying of our libraries and classrooms, and that there’s going to be a drop in literacy.”

Paul Burns, chancellor of the department’s division of public schools, responded: “I think that it is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening in our Florida schools. There should be no empty or bare bookshelves in our classrooms. There should be no empty or bare bookshelves in our libraries. Kids should have access and continue to have access to quality reading materials.”

Gibson and Burns also refuted statements from teachers unions about record-high teacher vacancies in Florida. By their calculations, Florida has 4,776 vacancies, a number that is lower than last year’s and, per school, is below the national average.