Two hotly contested bills about race and gender lessons in Florida public schools took a step closer to becoming law on Thursday, as the Republican-dominated state House overwhelmingly approved the measures along largely partisan lines and sent them to the Senate.
Both pieces of legislation — commonly referred to as the “individual freedoms” (HB 7) and “don’t say gay” (HB 1557) bills — have been widely lauded by conservatives across the state as a way to give parents more control over what their children are taught in school and what services they receive.
Critics of the measures have contended that they would undermine the rights and freedoms of historically under-represented groups, primarily racial minorities and LGBTQ individuals. Democrats won a handful of concessions through amendments on Tuesday and Thursday, but still said both were dubbed “bad bills.”
On Thursday, the sides once again faced off on the House floor for another round of emotional speeches, dotted with the singing of spiritual hymns and poetry readings.
Individual rights vs. history lessons
In a nod to concerns that HB 7 — which took some direction from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed “Stop W.O.K.E.” agenda — would lead to a whitewashing of Black and Native American history, bill sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, on Thursday welcomed a Democrat-led amendment to clarify what may be taught.
The amendment stated that teachers would be allowed to teach concepts such as how individual freedoms have been infringed upon by slavery, racial oppression, segregation and discrimination.
“I wanted to make sure that any chilling effect this would have on the education of Black studies would be quelled,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens.
“Nothing in this bill bans the teaching of historical facts about slavery, about sexism, about racial oppression, about racial segregation and about racial discrimination. Absolutely nothing,” Avila said. “We would and should be outraged if those important lessons are not being taught in our classrooms.”
The main point of the bill, proponents said, is that teachers should not try to “indoctrinate or persuade” students, or to instruct students to feel guilt, anguish or psychological distress based on the actions of others. Some Floridians have complained that children have been taught about privilege and responsibility based on race, equating it with “critical race theory” — a college-level field of study — and demanded it not take place in K-12 schools.
School officials across Florida have said they do not include critical race theory in their curriculum.
“It’s extremely, extremely important for our children to know our history — the bad parts and the good parts — but to know that their lives aren’t responsible for that history,” said state Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican.
State Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican and high school history teacher, chided the bill’s critics for misrepresenting the measure.
“As an expert in the teaching of history, there is nothing that alarms me or frustrates me about this bill,” Plasencia said. “But remember, our words do have consequences, our false narratives have consequences.”
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Opponents of the bill said teachers already teach the material in a fair and impartial manner. They suggested proponents offered no Florida examples of such attempts to indoctrinate children.
“This bill is sending a clear message that we don’t trust our teachers,” said Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, added that she was tired of hearing from others about the bill’s impact.
“This bill didn’t manifest out of thin air,” Driskell said. “It’s in the context of a concerted effort to suppress stories of communities of color and to not teach our history, which is also everyone’s history, in a truthful and accurate way.”
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, urged his colleagues to focus on more critical issues.
“We are about to start litigating the culture war in this state, and instead of working up here to be reducing costs for hardworking Floridians — the cost of groceries, the cost of housing, the cost of health care — we’re opening up new causes of action against our businesses and our schools,” Diamond said. “We shouldn’t do that.”
The bill passed 74-41, with no Democrats in support.
The Senate’s version of the bill (SB 148) passed the Education Committee on Jan. 18 and is assigned to the Rules Committee for further consideration.
Parents rights vs. LGBTQ concerns
The Democrats offered no new amendments to HB 1557 after failing to get any approved on Tuesday. They again debated against the measure, which gained attention for its provision prohibiting instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, or otherwise if not age-appropriate.
The bill does not define “age-appropriate.”
The bill also gives parents more say over the health services that schools provide.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, led the charge against the bill, surrounded by the Democratic delegation. Smith is openly gay and a vocal advocate for LGBTQ issues. He said he wore his Pride lapel pin upside down to indicate a community in distress.
“We call it the ‘don’t say gay’ bill because it prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Smith said. “But members, this bill goes way beyond the text on the page. It sends a terrible message to our youth, that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction.”
He noted the bill does not prohibit lessons about sexual activity, but rather about sexual orientation and an “entire community of people.”
“I want to make sure that for those LGBTQ youth in Florida and around the country and in the world who are watching, I want to make sure that they know this: You are loved, you are supported, and we will wake up every single day to fight for you because you are worth fighting for,” Smith said.
Rep. Robert Brannan III, R-Macclenny, saw the bill quite differently.
“I believe the fundamental question is, who has the responsibility? Who should be charged with instilling values in our children?” Brannan said. “I just believe primarily, it should be parents.”
The bill states that schools must notify parents about any change in their children’s services, or in their health and well-being.
State Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said this bill is needed.
“The schools are affirmatively excluding the parents. They are making life-changing decisions for children without the involvement of the parent.” Grall said. “This is about, you must include the parents in these conversations.”
State Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, told Republicans to think hard about their vote.
“This is an anti-gay bill, and if you vote for this anti-gay bill, after today you can never, ever claim to be an ally of the LGBTQ community. In fact, you are voting to be an opponent,” Grieco said. “I’m gonna vote down on this bill, and I’m going to say gay until I’m rainbow in the face.”
The bill passed 69-47, with one Democrat, James Bush III of Miami, in support and seven Republicans against. They were Vance Aloupis of Miami, Demi Busatta Cabrera of Coral Gables, Chip LaMarca of Lighthouse Point, Amber Mariano of Hudson, Jim Mooney of Islamorada, Plasencia of Orlando and Will Robinson of Bradenton.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is poised to take up the House version of the “don’t say gay” bill on Monday.
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