Thursday, May 24, 2018

Parents could get more voice in school textbook selection under bill moving through Florida Legislature

Florida lawmakers pushed ahead this week with another bill aimed at giving parents and residents more say over textbooks and other instructional materials used in the public schools.

It's a measure that proponents frame as providing more points for public input into a process where it's been limited in the past.

"We keep asking parents to get engaged in the education of their children, yet there are some areas we don't want them to get involved in, and that is instructional materials," said Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.

All SB 1644 does, Mayfield said, is open comment periods to the Florida Department of Education as it considers textbook adoptions. "I don't really see any harm in putting a little bit more public input at the front end."

Critics, however, focused on a different part of the bill that would allow parents and residents to not only challenge materials, but also recommend materials whose publishers would have to be contacted with notification of the adoption cycle.

"I just can't get my hands wrapped around the consequences that could come from this bill," said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. "I worry about those who would deny climate change, those who would deny evolution, having too great a say."

His concerns stem in part from the Legislature's adoption a year ago of a bill that allows both parents and community residents without children in the schools to demand hearings on materials they might find objectionable.

Districts began receiving challenges shortly after the law took effect. Some are still revising their policies to meet the latest requirements.

Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., also a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, raised concerns that a "small minority" of people from a small section of Florida is controlling the issue.

"If we continue to do this every year, they're going to come back wanting more," Thurston said in opposition.

Sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he was mindful of the "sensitive nature" of the subject areas being discussed. But he added that he was trying to avoid control of the curriculum, and also aiming to ensure the state and districts can do their jobs, while still allowing people a voice.

He said he would listen to concerns being raised and consider any changes that might be needed as the bill progresses. Its House companion, HB 827, has been heard by one of its three committees of reference.

The bills are not identical.

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