A slew of teachers, parents and students spoke Tuesday morning against legislation that would more closely regulate LGBTQ instruction in the classroom and conversations with younger students.
Despite the wave of public testimony opposing the bill, the measure (SB 1834) was passed in a 6-3 vote along party lines by the Senate Education Committee.
The legislation, sponsored by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, would ban school districts from “encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate.” It also would allow parents to sue a school district if such a violation occurred. In presenting the bill, Baxley said it would promote parental rights and prevent schools from advancing “social agendas.”
“There’s a reorientation going on in our culture, maybe some of it’s very good. But parents have a parent role, and it’s being ignored,” Baxley said. “I think when you start opening sexual type discussions with children, you’re entering a very dangerous zone.”
Baxley made clear his concern was that rather than teaching students basic skills, teachers are tasked with “social engineering” LGBTQ matters. Some see the legislation as part of the culture wars shaping this Session’s priorities.
The bill is akin to the Parents’ Bill of Rights measure passed last year that also drew objections from the LBGTQ community. The law later provided a legal avenue to stop schools from requiring students to wear face masks over their parents’ objections.
“My concern is that when we’re off track. Rather than equipping these very young students with basic skill sets … we have an agenda that is part of the curriculum that is I believe, social engineering. And it’s age-inappropriate,” Baxley argued. “I think what’s happening is they have a political and cultural view that they get wrapped up in and they become advocates in that setting with children, and not thinking about, ‘This is the parent’s role. This is not my role.'”
So, what would violate the legislation? Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. John’s Republican, suggested an example of a homework assignment that included a math problem led by the premise of “Sally has two moms or Johnny has two dads.” That, Baxley said, is “exactly where the problem is.”
“There is a way to move agendas. People do get enthusiastic about agendas that they care about and affect their lives. And we’ve got to draw a line of authority,” Baxley said. “Parents do not want to be left out. They want to be in charge of their own and take responsibility for their students, and that is exactly the difference in initiating some kind of teaching method versus sticking to the mission.”
However, the pair did not discuss whether that assignment would be in violation of the legislation if the premise of the problem included a mother and father figure, which would also describe sexual orientation or gender identity.
The proposal, dubbed by some public commenters the “don’t say gay bill,” drew opposition from over 100 individuals Tuesday. The number of people wanting to speak on the bill led Sen. Shevrin Jones, the committee’s vice-chair, to waive Democrats’ opportunity to debate in committee in favor of hearing testimony.
Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, spoke against the legislation, calling it “government censorship.”
“If passed, it would effectively silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ+ family members, friends, neighbors and icons. Additionally, it would bar students from talking about their own lives and would erase their very existence,” she said. “These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them so. … You don’t need to vote on this bill today, you’re choosing to.”
Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, echoed Gross’ concerns.
“It is patently offensive to say that school discussions, even with young children, referring to two moms or two dads — parents, like those that are sitting in this room that are your constituents … are somehow dangerous or inappropriate,” he said.
Several parents within the LGBTQ community spoke with concern that discussion about their families would be not be considered “age-appropriate” under the legislation, and that the bill would lead to an increase in suicide attempts by students who identify with the LGBTQ community.
“My child, who is transgender, is not here with me because he could not get an equitable or safe education from the county that I’m selling my talents to every day,” said Anita Hatcher, a sixth-grade teacher in Jackson County. “When you deny one child, you deny every child. I have been embracing children’s questions in the classroom for 36 years as a public educator, as a trusted servant.”
Although Baxley presented the bill as regulating LGBTQ matters in a pre-K through third-grade curriculum, the legislation’s language does not make mention of curriculum instruction or grade levels. Its vague language, which bans “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity,” was also criticized by commenters.
Proponents of the legislation included the Family Policy Council; the Florida PTA opposes it.
The Senate bill now heads to its second of three committees before it can be heard by the full chamber. In January, the House Education and Employment Committee approved Republican Rep. Joe Harding’s House version of the legislation (HB 1557).