Two years ago, when historian Marvin Dunn wanted to talk to a Pinecrest classroom about Black history, his visit didn’t require much planning. But when he returned last week to give a lecture on his personal experience with segregation, only Palmetto Middle School students with signed permission slips were able to attend.
The change is a stark example of how a state law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 is impacting at least one school district in Florida — Miami Dade County Public Schools — as local school officials try to comply with broad state regulations that seek to give parents greater control over their children’s education.
To comply with the Parental Rights in Education law, the school district since at least November has required schools to get parental consent for activities, including club meetings and events, guest speakers, college adviser visits, tutoring or enrichment sessions and school dances.
Previously, those forms were only used sparingly. Now, even listening to a Holocaust survivor speak requires a parent’s signature.
“It’s unfortunate that school districts have to go through this with the new laws because they’re fearful that somebody like a politician or a parent will come after them for hosting what they deem to be a controversial speaker or topic or event,” said Richard Ocampo, a ninth-grade social studies and world history teacher at William H. Turner Technical Arts Senior High, located in West Little River.
A Florida Department of Education spokesperson stressed that schools don’t need anyone’s permission to teach Black history, and characterized the impact of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law as a “media driven lie.”
The spokesperson did not respond when asked specifically about the district’s permission slip policy, which was implemented in response to the state law. In a statement issued Thursday to the Miami Herald, the district said “there are concerns on whether the district is going too far and district officials are planning on asking the state for clarification.”
Permission slip policy expanded
Florida law requires school districts to adopt procedures to notify parents about any change in students’ services and the “school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.”
It also says those school procedures “may not prohibit parents from accessing any of their student’s education.”
In other school districts, parents have been asked to sign a consent form before their school-aged children can be called by a name other than the one on their birth certificate. Those changes were also in response to the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have called Don’t Say Gay.
This year, Florida lawmakers are considering legislation that would restrict how aspiring teachers learn to educate children about racism or sexism in teacher-preparation programs.
In Miami-Dade, educators are starting to take note of the impact the permission slip policy is having on their daily jobs.
A couple of years ago, Ocampo invited a guest to speak on environmental and health issues like global warming. To do that, he says, he filled out a single paper and got it approved by his principal and the school’s activities director the next day. If he were to repeat that now, he says he would need to make over 150 copies of a form to distribute to his students and then collect and check each signature.
“That whole process would take a lot of time,” said Ocampo, who’s been teaching for 15 years. “It’s a lot more work, so I think it will discourage teachers from organizing those activities.”
Mayade Ersoff, the eighth-grade social studies teacher at Palmetto Middle who invited Dunn to appear two years ago and again this year, said she first noticed a broader use of permission slips in late May.
One of her colleagues, the language arts teacher at Palmetto Middle School, invited a Holocaust survivor to speak to her students, as they had just learned about the Holocaust. The teacher encouraged Ersoff and a third teacher to bring their classes to the presentation, too.
But as Ersoff was preparing to head over with her students, she says the principal announced on the loudspeaker that only students who had turned in a signed permission slip from their parents or guardians could attend.
Ersoff didn’t know she needed to do that, so she couldn’t take her kids.
“I was furious,” she said.
Ersoff decided to email Lourdes Diaz, the school district’s chief academic officer, inquiring about the rule. Diaz never replied, Ersoff said.
Nearly six months later, on Nov. 30, Ersoff’s principal sent official guidance on the topic telling staff that, “effective immediately,” they needed to use a paper called Form 2424 “for any activity or event scheduled by the school during or outside of school hours.”
After getting forms for Dunn’s presentation this year, Ersoff asked other teachers if they were also dealing with the new policy. She says a colleague told her: “Next year, I’ll put a whole list of the things I want to do so I don’t have to do this over and over again.”
“After the first week that we gave the forms for Dr. Dunn, I only got a few back,” Ersoff said. “The kids kept telling me, ‘Oh no, my mom forgot,’ or ‘it’s lying on the table. What’s the deadline?’”
“Really, it’s such a deterrent,” she added. “There’s no movement we can do without a permission slip — I swear that’s what it feels like, like you have these eyes looking at you all the time. It’s horrible.”
Is there a chilling effect in education?
At iPrep Academy in Miami this week, school staff distributed a form to all students requesting approval to take part in all of the school events it was planning for Black History Month to showcase the “diverse traditions, histories and innumerable contributions of the Black community.” Only one parent said they did not want their child participating in the events, district officials said.
Some community members took issue with the framing and questioned whether it had discriminatory undertones.
Asked Thursday, Dunn said he doesn’t view the slips at iPrep for Black History Month as discriminatory because they were sent out under a widespread district policy. However, he said the school was probably extra fearful because Black history has become such a divisive topic in the state.
“The tone has been set in Tallahassee that Black history is to be diminished, so Black history programs are more vulnerable to this type of intrusion than any other type of program,” he said. “I would not expect the same level of parental interference during Hispanic History Month.”
He also worried that a single parent’s decision to opt their kid out of the presentation could have a “disproportionate impact.”
At a Miami-Dade School Board committee meeting Wednesday, Board member Steve Gallon III worried there might be a “disconnect” in how the district is implementing Florida law, which he argued may lead to inequity among students if their parents are not able to sign permission slips because they work several jobs or deal with other issues.
“This is more than just Black History, this is about equal access to the fullness of what education represents,” Gallon said.
To others, it is not surprising to see local school policy get in the crosshairs of DeSantis’ education policies.
“That’s what happens when you pass ambiguous types of legislation like that — you leave it up for interpretation and sometimes that will guarantee eliminations where students will be missing out on education from amazing scholars and historians,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said about the state’s impact on local education policies.
Jones also believes that efforts in the Legislature that restrict how schools teach about racism and other aspects of history are “interconnected” with other efforts outside of schools.
On Tuesday, for example, an emotional debate about racism and white history erupted in the state Capitol as lawmakers considered a bill that would block cities and counties from removing or relocating Confederate monuments.
A supporter of the bill characterized efforts to remove historical memorials as a “culture war being waged against white society,” leading one Democratic lawmaker to wonder about the state’s holistic approach to teaching history.
“What are we really teaching our children?” Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Tamarac Democrat who served as a longtime member of the Broward County School Board, said at the meeting. “Are we really being authentic in our efforts to preserve history all around? I can’t just do it in monuments and restrict it in education when I want to silence something that I don’t like.”