TALLAHASSEE — Moms and dads would have more power to challenge their child's classroom books or other lesson materials that parents deem distasteful, offensive or inappropriate for public schools, under a bill the Florida Legislature passed Friday.
Lawmakers argue county school boards aren't giving parents a fair say to contest instructional materials, and that HB 989 only "tightens up that process." But opponents fear it makes it easier for parents to object on philosophical grounds to some core topics their children are taught — such as evolution or sex education, or historical events, like slavery or the Holocaust.
Senators approved the bill, 19-17, after about 40 minutes of debate Friday. Miami-Dade Republican Sens. Anitere Flores and René García opposed it with the chamber's 15 Democrats.
The House previously approved the bill by a 94-25 vote, so the legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
Senate sponsor Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said critics' concerns about extreme complaints were unwarranted because he said the legislation limits what kind of objections parents could make.
The bill states parents and residents of a school district can challenge any classroom materials, library books or reading lists that contain "pornographic" content or "is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group."
It's that vague language — as well as how the bill defines the "resident" who can make the challenge — that has Democrats most concerned. They also worry it overrides the authority of elected school board members.
"This seems to go a lot farther than a lot of us think makes sense," Miami Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez said.
Supporters, including Republican senators, said parents are encouraged to be involved in their child's school, and this works toward making that easier.
Vero Beach Republican Sen. Debbie Mayfield said some parents in her Treasure Coast district were particularly upset about some of the materials their children receive — such as summer reading lists that include "books that our children are being given that are very offensive." (She didn't elaborate as to what books those were.)
"Parents need to be engaged, and parents need to have a say in what their children are receiving and being required to read," she said.
The ACLU of Florida warned the legislation "makes it easier to censor and ban books."
"Florida's educational resources are stretched thin enough," said Kara Gross, the group's legislative counsel. "Taxpayer dollars should be spent teaching students with instructional materials that meet state standards, not wasted on countless public reviews and hearings on textbooks and lessons that one person doesn't like or agree with."
During a Wednesday morning caucus breakfast, Democratic senators had a lengthy discussion about the proposal, noting various challenges parents might make. For instance, Broward County Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, mentioned health education materials and "things that keep kids safe."
"We're opening a real Pandora's box here that could be really, really dangerous to students," she said.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said it could "let anybody come in and complain about, you know, the history of slavery, or the fact that maybe we shouldn't have evolution in our textbooks."
He added dryly: "Have they talked about what they're going to do with the books after they remove them from the library? Are we going to have a burning in the courtyard, or … ?"
Republican Sens. Dana Young, of Tampa, and Jack Latvala, of Clearwater, were out of the Senate chamber during the vote, but their absence wouldn't have changed the outcome. Young told the Times/Herald she would have voted yes; Latvala wouldn't say how he would have voted.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByKristenMClark