Members of the conservative Florida Citizens Alliance have been appalled with what they’ve seen in the books being handed to students in the public schools.
“Pornographic” scenes in novels. Religious “indoctrination” boosting Islam over others in the social studies books. “Unbalanced propaganda” promoting climate change in science texts.
The group wants to ban much of what it finds objectionable, eliminating titles like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to textbooks, including Harcourt Publishing’s Modern World History 9th Grade and Pearson’s Essentials of Oceanography.
With the ear of Gov. Ron DeSantis and several state lawmakers, it’s angling to get that wish codified into law.
“We have documented almost 100 textbooks and novels that violate [Florida] statutes,” said Florida Citizens Alliance managing director Keith Flaugh, who sat on a DeSantis education advisory committee. “What we’re trying to do is get Florida school districts to follow Florida statute.”
Its attempts to make book challenges easier has galvanized a coalition of organizations, including the Florida American Civil Liberties and the Florida Conference of Historians, which has tried to fight back. The latest target: New legislation (House Bill 855 / Senate Bill 1454) carried by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.
The bills pose a “clear and present danger” to public education, said Brandon Haught, a leader with Florida Citizens for Science and a Volusia County classroom teacher.
Florida Citizens Alliance members “want to bully the school boards into complying with them,” Haught said.
When mounting challenges to novels and textbooks in Collier County, among others, the Florida Citizens Alliance ran into hurdles it did not expect. It previously had convinced lawmakers to allow all residents, not just parents, to object to school materials, and to have outside hearing officers review the complaints.
But the hearing officers weren’t independent, said Hill, and because the school boards were more likely to listen to the officers they controlled, they were also likely to reject the complaints. He also said that boards, rather than consider each individual complaints, were instead bundling them together in broad-brush reviews that disappointed those making the complaints.
The legislation aims to change such details, preventing school boards from choosing hearing officers, for instance, and granting appeals beyond the local level. It also would make it a felony to buy any books that contain content deemed pornographic under state obscenity statutes, or otherwise determined “not acceptable.”
“The purpose of the bill is to remove pornography out of our public schools, which is existing there today. I’ve seen it firsthand,” Hill said, denying the measure has anything to do with promoting controversial science or history lessons. “It is simply trying to protect our children.”
Marion County superintendent Heidi Maier, whose district faces an Alliance complaint over 14 novels in school libraries, criticized the legislation as a blatant attempt to hinder local control of schools.
“I am a proud conservative,” Maier said. “But with that, as well, I also believe in the public school mission.”
She noted the Marion School Board had implemented its own textbook adoption system, separate from the state’s, and it advocates having such decisions made closer to home. The proposal would take rights away from local voters, she added.
An avid reader, Maier also bristled at the notion of criminalizing the purchase of books.
“Frankly, I would probably be the first to be put in jail” if the legislation becomes law, she said.
Collier County parent Anne Hartley has been a vocal critic of the Florida Citizens Alliance, which has its roots in her hometown. She’s attacked its credibility, and questioned DeSantis’ judgment in selecting its members to advise him.
Hartley suggested the group is pushing too far in trying to make decisions for all Florida families. What’s unacceptable for some is fine for others, she said, particularly as children begin tackling more advanced and mature concepts and themes.
“Parents should be able to have a say in what our kids learn,” Hartley said. “Why should this one political group have more influence than parents?”
Rep. Hill said he found the opposition amusing.
“Whenever it’s something the left doesn’t like, it’s ‘controversial’” he said. “To me, it’s common sense. I don’t think it’s controversial. I think it’s something that needs to be done.”
The bills have been assigned to several committees, and have not been scheduled for hearings. But that seemingly long march to the chamber floors isn’t leading the opponents to ease up.
“You might figure there’s no way,” Haught said. “But we can’t dismiss this.”