The gross audaciousness of HB 7069, the legislation with the further tilt toward charter schools that was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, has sucked most of the air out of the public education debate. That's a shame, because while the breadth and harm of the new law make it worthy of all the attention, it is not the only wrongheaded policy signed by the governor that seem aimed at micromanaging public education into extinction.
One of the most deceptive approaches was dubbed a religious liberties bill by its supporters. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said it was needed to "clarify First Amendment rights of free speech.'' Actually, senator, the First Amendment is pretty plainspoken when it comes to free speech and religion. Instead, it is SB 436 that will muddy the waters in Florida schools and inevitably face constitutional challenges.
The bill reaffirms that students and teachers are allowed to pray privately during non-curriculum moments at school, but that was a right that already existed under the First Amendment. It then goes a step further with language that would allow teachers or students to openly express religious beliefs in class or at other public school functions, which is seemingly in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions. The potential of proselytizing along with the ostracizing of students are just two possible pitfalls among the many unintended consequences this ill-considered law could wrought.
The second, and potentially more calamitous, bill signed by Scott was HB 989. This law gives almost anyone — from parents to strangers off the street — the ability to challenge the appropriateness of a classroom lesson. Supporters say it empowers parents, but it more accurately promotes censorship.
Think of the mayhem this could create. Don't believe in evolution? Challenge the science teacher. Don't believe high schoolers should learn about sex education? Challenge the health teacher. Don't believe the Holocaust actually happened? Challenge the history teacher. Don't like the language in The Catcher in the Rye? Challenge the American lit teacher.
Legislators used straw man arguments to insist this bill was necessary, citing unnamed instances of parents who were unhappy with the age-appropriateness of books on reading lists. To be blunt, this sounds like bunk. Schools routinely have alternative selections available if a parent feels a particular book contains objectionable material. To waste precious time and resources on reviews of mainstream books and lessons is foolishness. Even more absurd is the possibility of denying a particular lesson to a large majority of students because one parent, or any other resident of the school district, disagrees with it.
For a state that has gone to great lengths to ensure that teachers are held accountable and curriculum adheres strictly to Florida's testing standards, how on Earth does it make sense to permit anyone with time on their hands and an ax to grind to throw a classroom into chaos?
The common thread in all of these bills, from HB 7069 on down, is state legislators usurping control of local school boards and school districts. These same lawmakers who shout and stomp their feet at any sign of interference from the federal government are interfering even more in local schools. (See: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.) It is hypocrisy. It is bad governance. Sadly, it is business as usual in Florida.