Florida education officials should quit intentionally confusing the issue | Editorial
Bad and conflicting advice is forcing classrooms into the culture wars.
Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. speaks as Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on during an event in Tampa on March 8.
Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. speaks as Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on during an event in Tampa on March 8. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 21

Florida’s Department of Education has a nifty way of getting other people to do its dirty work. Simply create enough confusion, and local school districts and parents across Florida’s 67 counties will tie themselves in knots over newfound controversies, from instruction over gender issues and race to what books belong on campuses. This is toxic for traditional public schools, which, despite the growth of charters, still teach the vast majority of Florida’s schoolchildren.

District school officials say frustration is mounting as they try to enforce new education laws championed by Florida’s Republican-run government regarding race, sex, gender issues and books. Vaguely written rules, changing directives and confusing guidance from state officials are hampering efforts at the local level to comply, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey S. Solochek reported. School districts are responding to the threat of heavy penalties in a multitude of ways; some districts are adopting clear policies to comply, while others are reacting unilaterally and haphazardly to avoid any whiff of trouble.

The result? School districts are operating in a culture of fear, mistrustful of Tallahassee and wondering what’s coming next. State leaders, meanwhile, are exploiting this environment of uncertainty to promote their conservative agenda, which has energized conservative activists to push for banning books.

Since the end of the spring legislative session, Florida’s State Board of Education has adopted 63 rule changes, with another 19 still in draft, the Times reported. By comparison, the board adopted 65 changes during the same time period last year. “I don’t think the relationship has ever been as poor” between districts and the Department of Education, said Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook, who has dealt with 10 education commissioners during her six terms in office.

“Just give us an answer, yes or no, and we’ll know which way to go,” said longtime Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, discussing his frustrations over the state’s recent handling of the Advanced Placement Psychology course.

The Pinellas school district acted preemptively recently, pulling five books from its shelves amid concerns that their content, which includes graphic sex and violence, is inappropriate for minors. The district took action without having received any formal complaints about the titles.

That’s happening throughout Florida, too, as parents and activists are not bothering to file formal complaints, taking their demands for removing books directly to elected school boards. The state education department held another workshop this month on handling book objections, guidance that districts will have to follow once it’s complete. But the department’s guidance has been so weak and inconsistent to now, it’s unclear how this latest exercise will help in establishing a fair, uniform way to assess what publications are appropriate.

Districts need to follow established procedures for reviewing books and other educational materials. Erring on the side of caution is a cop-out; without due process, no school policy is truly legitimate. Parents who want to keep these materials in circulation have a stake in these challenges, too. And the state should not be allowed to manipulate the outcome merely by dispensing bad advice that serves only to confuse.

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“Superintendents can’t lead in fear,” said Addison Davis, an education consultant who recently resigned after three years as Hillsborough County superintendent. He’s right, but that climate of fear is serving state education officials just fine. Until the mentality changes in Tallahassee, school districts need to push back to protect local control.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.