With culture wars heating up in an election year, the Florida House on Tuesday split along bitter partisan lines as members considered two Republican-sponsored education bills that target discussions of race and sexual orientation in public schools.
The proposals — backed by Republican legislative leadership and Gov. Ron DeSantis — have provoked heated debate in the state Capitol and around the country in recent months, with Democrats and critics worried they could have a chilling effect on what can be taught in the classroom and could harm LGBTQ students.
Supporters argue the measures would give parents more control over decisions related to students’ well-being in schools and prevent teachers from making students feel uncomfortable over events they did not play a role in.
The Republican-led House is poised to approve both the so-called “don’t say gay” bill (HB 1557) – which takes aim at classroom instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation — and a measure that is similar to DeSantis’ proposed “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” (HB 7). The bills’ final passage could come as early as Thursday.
Similar bills are moving through the Senate.
In advance of the final vote in the House, Democrats offered dozens of amendments in an attempt to tone down the potential effects.
They had a few victories. Their biggest win came less than an hour before the start of the floor session. Republican leaders withdrew a proposed amendment to HB 1557 that critics said could have led to the outing of LGBTQ youth to their parents even if they faced potential abuse.
“Nothing in the amendment was about outing a student. Rather than battle misinformation related to the amendment, I decided to focus on the primary bill that empowers parents to be engaging in their children’s lives,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston.
The amendment’s withdrawal came as a surprise to House Democrats, who cheered when they learned the amendment would no longer be considered.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who worked behind the scenes to kill the proposed amendment, told his Democratic caucus that pulling the “sinister, malicious, unconscionable amendment” did not make the bill “OK at all in any way, shape or form.”
The hot-button education bills come as DeSantis seeks reelection and has sought to cast himself as the lead opposition to President Joe Biden by championing many conservative culture war issues.
DeSantis is scheduled to talk Thursday afternoon at the national Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando — around the same time the House is scheduled to take its final votes on the two bills. The conference will also feature panels focused on parents’ rights and one titled, “Are you ready to be called racist: the courage to run for office.”
‘Don’t say gay’ bill debated
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The measure that has been called the “don’t say gay” bill has sparked emotional reactions across Florida and has been condemned by the White House.
Advocates of LGBTQ rights have attended House committee hearings to tell personal stories about how children struggling with their identity have often confided in trusted educators who offer them safe spaces and support, saying the bill could put such conversations in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, bill supporters have portrayed it as one that keeps parents in the loop when it comes to their children’s important personal matters. Some conservative activists have also testified in committee hearings that they want to see more biblical values enforced in schools and see this bill as a way to do so.
The House floor discussion on Tuesday grew emotional as Smith, who is gay, teared up as he talked about how the legislation affects him and his community. Smith asked what topics about “people like myself, LGBTQ Floridians, are not appropriate to teach in the classroom.”
“This isn’t about targeting any specific type of gender or sexual orientation,” Harding said. “What we’re saying within the bill is that instruction relating to those topics at those ages are conversations that need to be had at home and should not be part of instruction.”
Harding said teachers would not be prevented from talking about historical events, or about their families.
Several Democrats asked how educators would determine what “age-appropriate” lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation would be permitted under the bill. Harding said the definition would come from the academic standards adopted by the Department of Education.
He stressed that the bill is designed to ensure parents are not kept in the dark by schools on issues such as decisions about health services or instruction about gender issues.
He did not support an effort to remove a provision that allows parents to sue if they think the school has violated this measure. But he did offer a revision that would add an option for a special magistrate hearing to handle parent concerns.
“This amendment is necessary because it’s good policy to create a level playing field for parents, parents that may not have means necessary,” Harding said.
That measure passed along partisan lines.
Democrats presented 12 amendments, but none passed.
One sought to specifically prohibit schools from outing LGBTQ students against their will to an unsupportive parent. Amendment sponsor Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, connected the principle to one Republicans supported during their debate on an abortion bill.
“Last week we heard in debate about how we must protect the rights of innocent children and protect all stages of life. So why aren’t we protecting our children’s right to privacy?” Nixon said.
Harding called the amendment “unfriendly.” Earlier in the discussion, he said, “Nowhere in the bill is a school required to out a student.”
Another amendment sought to ban instruction on sexual activity rather than sexual orientation, with members saying the two had become conflated.
Targeting race discussions
House Republicans followed DeSantis’ lead and advanced proposed restrictions on classroom discussions about race. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, said the bill would block “movements that threaten to take us backwards.”
Avila argued the bill will uphold principles that “no race is inherently superior to another race” and that “no one race is inherently racist.” He also contended it would not prevent the teaching of historical facts, but was meant to keep out ideologies.
The bill says that in Florida, students cannot be taught or instructed that they “bear responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions they played no part in, and that were committed by members of their race, gender or national origin.
Democrats focused their questions on scenarios where students may feel guilt or discomfort when teachers teach them about uncomfortable historical subjects.
“I keep hearing you say a teacher can teach. But isn’t it more accurate, under your bill, that a teacher can only teach in these confines and then now, if this passes, that a teacher is subject to litigation based on how a child will feel?” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.
Avila said the bill is designed to say that teachers cannot “assign blame to a particular student because of their race or because of their sex or national origin.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, asked Avila whether a teacher could tell students to read a book that discusses ideas such as white privilege. Avila responded that all material given to students must align with the principles of the bill.
Avila said his bill should block books like Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, which rose in popularity after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests ignited much race discussion in public schools.
Democrats attempted to amend the bill with 17 proposed amendments. All but two were rejected.
One amendment sponsored by Driskell was approved unanimously. Her amendment would add the study of people of the African diaspora to required instruction.
Avila also worked with state Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, on a bipartisan amendment that would expand required instruction on African American studies to include the “understanding of the ramification of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on individual freedoms.”
The bills go to a final House vote on Thursday. The Senate is expected to take up its versions afterward.
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