Editor’s note: A House committee moved forward a different version of House Bill 1557 on Feb. 17. More information on those changes can be found here.
TALLAHASSEE — A provision tucked into two education bills moving through the Florida Legislature is causing a major stir this legislative session.
The so-called “parental rights in education” bills, Senate Bill 1834 and House Bill 1557, say parents should have more say in deciding what their children are exposed to in the classroom. If the bills were to become law, they would give parents the right to sue school districts that violate their provisions.
Critics, who call the measures Florida’s “don’t say gay” bills, argue the measures are an attempt to weaponize the idea of parental rights to marginalize LGBTQ people.
The part of the bills generating the most debate is short: just 31 words.
“A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” the bills read.
What exactly does that mean? Lawmakers and advocates have different ideas. Let’s dig into the debate. Here are the three most pressing questions about the measures.
1. What problem are the bills trying to solve?
In recent years, Republicans in the Legislature have passed a number of measures aimed at asserting the rights of parents to shape their children’s future. Perhaps most notable among them was a bill that became law in 2021, House Bill 241, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which stopped government agencies from interfering with a parent’s right to “direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of their child.
This year’s bills would build upon that measure, giving parents the right to sue school districts that fail to notify them of “critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” School districts could withhold some information from parents if the disclosure would “result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”
The controversial 31-word sections on sexual orientation and gender identity are just part of the four-page bills, which would go into effect July 1 if Gov. Ron DeSantis signs them into law.
According to a House bill analysis, some school districts have policies that “exclude” parents from certain discussions, such as confidentiality policies aimed at keeping LGBTQ kids safe.
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For example, the analysis cited policies in Hillsborough, Broward and Palm Beach counties that say it’s inappropriate to divulge a child’s sexual identity to a parent without the child’s consent. House staffers cited a case in Leon County in which parents sued the school district for allegedly freezing them out of a discussion about their child’s gender identity.
At a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill’s sponsor, said discussions about a child’s sexuality or gender identity would fall under the auspices of his bill. That means if it became law, a school district would not be able to maintain policies that keep a kid’s sexual orientation or gender identity from parents in many cases.
As of Tuesday, the bills had cleared one committee in the House and one in the Senate.
2. What does it mean for a district to not “encourage classroom discussion” about gender identity?
This is by far the major sticking point in the legislation. The bill’s sponsors, Baxley and Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, say the measure is meant to stop schools from creating curricula geared toward educating young children about gender or sexual orientation before they are mature enough to handle it.
Classroom presentations, school clubs and other less formal discussions between students and teachers involving gender or sexuality would be allowed under the bill, they say.
“Conversations are going to happen,” Harding said at a House committee meeting in January where lawmakers voted to move the bill forward. Children and students ask a lot of questions.”
In an interview Monday, Baxley noted the bill singles out “primary grade levels” — instruction for young kids. Primary school ends in third grade.
However, critics have argued that whatever the intentions of its authors, the bills’ language is vague.
“When I write my lesson plans as per the Florida Department of Education, they must be clear and specific,” said Myndee Washington, a Pasco County teacher who testified at Tuesday’s Senate committee hearing. “This bill is neither clear nor specific.”
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, one of the few openly gay members of the Florida Legislature, noted the relevant section comes with an important conjunction: or. If interpreted broadly, the section wouldn’t just apply to primary school students, it would apply to any policies that are not “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate,” he said.
To Smith, that could mean restrictions even in classrooms with older kids.
“That sentence in the bill seems to have two different standards,” Smith said.
Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, which opposes the bills, said the measures attempt to solve a nonexistent problem. There is no developmentally inappropriate curriculum about sexual orientation or gender identity being taught to young kids, she contended.
Absent that, the bill will succeed only in stopping teachers from having honest conversations with students, she said.
“The chilling effect is real,” Smith said.
Does Gov. Ron DeSantis support the bills?
DeSantis has been a supporter of the movement to allow parents to assert more control over their children’s schools, and this bill is no exception. When asked about his thoughts on the legislation Monday, the Republican governor said the bills made sense.
“We’ve seen instances of students being told by different folks in school, ‘Oh, don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet,’” DeSantis said at a news conference in Miami on Monday. “They won’t tell the parents about these discussions that are happening. That is entirely inappropriate. Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write.”
President Joe Biden has a different take. After the Senate committee voted to advance the bill Tuesday, a White House spokesperson issued a lengthy statement.
“Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom,” the statement read. “Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most.”
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