Florida asks schools for details about diversity, sex ed and other hot topics

State officials did not explain why they want the information, which is due Monday.
Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning said he expects legislation will follow a lengthy survey about school materials and programs sent by the Department of Education.
Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning said he expects legislation will follow a lengthy survey about school materials and programs sent by the Department of Education. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Feb. 24|Updated Feb. 24

The Florida Department of Education this week told school districts to produce detailed information about the programs and materials they use to address some of the state’s most hotly debated subjects.

In an email delivered late Tuesday, the department instructed superintendents to fill out a 34-question survey identifying titles of books and programs they have relating to sex education, social-emotional learning, culturally relevant teaching and diversity, and equity and inclusion, among other topics. It asked for specifics for student courses and employee training.

The department requested names and examples from district and charter schools. And it gave the districts until Monday to respond.

“It sounds very much like what they have done to the state university system,” said Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning.

Related: DeSantis to scrutinize diversity programs at Florida colleges, universities

In recent months, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis has asked universities and colleges to provide information about their work in diversity, equity and inclusion, and related to gender-affirming care. DeSantis followed those requests with speeches criticizing many of the concepts and calling on the Legislature to end spending for such items.

College presidents quickly announced they would end diversity programs. Legislation mirroring the governor’s agenda soon followed.

Related: Florida bill would end diversity programs, ban majors, shift power at universities

“What concerns me about the questions is they are all the hot-button topics and issues that are in the news,” Browning said, noting that the department did not explain its request. “What is it that they’re looking for?”

The department did not respond to calls and emails seeking added information.

Superintendents across Florida said their staffs are working to submit all the items, which include uploaded examples in addition to lists of titles and data about the percentages of schools that use the materials and programs.

“We’ve never had to get this in-depth before,” said Bay County superintendent Bill Husfelt, president of the state superintendents association.

He suggested that politically involved parent and community groups such as Moms for Liberty have played a part in the rising demand for specifics about what books, curriculum and other materials the schools use.

Moms for Liberty chapters across Florida have pressed school districts to remove books they claim contain pornography or other materials harmful to minors. The organization’s co-founders recently sat with DeSantis and other Republican officials to identify sitting school board members to target for removal in the 2024 elections.

Related: DeSantis targets 4 Tampa Bay area school board members in 2024 election

“Politics has always been like this,” said Husfelt, who has led his North Florida district for 15 years. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen public education as involved as it is right now.”

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Browning said he found it frustrating that the state appears to be targeting approaches such as positive behavior interventions and trauma-informed care, while at the same time requiring schools to address students’ mental health needs.

“It seems like they are saying, ‘Do it, but you can’t use this and you can’t use that,’” he said. “My question would be, ‘What is it you want me to use?’ There is nothing inherently evil in any of this stuff, in any of these topics that they are wanting information on.”

The state previously has made clear its disdain for social-emotional learning and culturally relevant teaching, banning it from math and social studies textbooks as they come up for adoption. It also has restricted lessons about human growth and development, which includes sex education.

Social-emotional learning is a strategy that aims to help students manage their emotions and develop empathy, among other traits. The state promoted it as a way to keep students safe after the Parkland school shooting.

Culturally relevant teaching attempts to present lessons in ways that better resonate with students of color. It was developed with the recognition that the teaching force in public schools is predominantly white while the majority of students are from other groups. In Florida, 57% of public school students are Black or Hispanic.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said Floridians should recognize that the state’s efforts to remove such concepts from schools is “messing with kids.”

“Kids learn best when they feel safe, when they feel secure, when they have a connection to their teacher,” Spar said. “When you hear the governor talking about how we shouldn’t do (social-emotional learning) or culturally responsive teaching, what we’re saying is, we shouldn’t teach kids the way they learn.”

While many of the state’s survey questions relate to approaches that DeSantis and others have reviled, others focus on models that they have applauded. For instance, the survey asks about the use of the “whole child approach,” which has been embraced by classical education schools such as those supported by Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Browning expected the survey would be a precursor to legislation.

“Isn’t everything?” he said.

Citrus County Superintendent Sam Himmel, immediate past president of the state superintendents association, said districts should not worry too much because they are serving their students well.

“We’re not afraid to let them know what we’re doing in our county,” Himmel said. “Now we wait and see what the information is when they send it back to us.”

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