Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to transform the state’s classrooms barely got mentioned at the first GOP presidential debate of the cycle. But it dominated discussion for much of the state Board of Education meeting just a few hours earlier.
As members adopted rules for putting approved legislation into practice, fireworks flew between state education officials and those who object to measures they feel are making classrooms ground zero for culture wars and stifling learning.
The State Board of Education Wednesday approved the procedure for calling in a special magistrate when individuals challenging classroom materials are not satisfied with the outcome. They also instituted new standards of behavior for teachers and established disciplinary procedures for those who don’t use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth at the state’s higher education institutions and private schools.
The rule-making is usually considered a formality after the drama of legislating is done, but this week’s meeting featured an outpouring of concerns that echoed legislative debate months earlier.
Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of Florida Freedom to Read Project, said ultimately, the state is going to end up with lower achievement due to the way it’s restricting materials and instituting rules.
Neither of her two elementary-age children have classroom libraries, for example. And that’s going to make it more difficult for teachers to figure out which children are not reading on grade level.
Rules adopted last year have required that these once-informal libraries that teachers commonly assembled out of yard sales and donations must undergo school district review for appropriateness. Reports suggest that some teachers don’t want to deal with the hassle.
“You have rules that are working against our teachers, against our kids and against our classrooms and I hope that you do consider that,” Ferrell said.
State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. says that Florida is leading the way in myriad ways.
“We will continue to fight and protect our students and their innocence,” he said in his introductory comments at Wednesday’s meeting in Collier County. His words echoed the Governor’s agenda, as DeSantis has put School Board elections and classroom issues the center of the state’s political discussion.
Speakers complained, though, that it appears that the rule seems to make it so that the special magistrate is available only to those who want material removed from school libraries, not to those parents who object to materials being removed.
The law calls for a special magistrate to judge
“I don’t feel like my rights as a parent are being protected in the slightest,” said Anjali Vasquez, who identified herself as the mother of a middle schooler. “If anything, I feel like they are being eroded. … Never in my life have I heard so much opposition to literacy and literary materials as a threat to education.”
But K-12 Public Schools Chancellor Paul Burns called any perception that school libraries are being emptied is a “gross mischaracterization.”
Ben Gibson, Chair of the state Board of Education, said the special magistrate will not so much be concerned with whether a book contains objectionable material, but whether the school district followed the correct procedure in implementing a policy regarding objections to library materials.
“It’s (about) do they have a policy in place? And do they follow the policy?” Gibson said about when a magistrate will be called in.
But that was not how Carlos Guillermo Smith, a former Orlando-area Democratic Representative now running for state Senate, said he understands the rule will do.
“This process here is about skewing the process and limiting it only to the book banners, on to those who want to see books censored and pulled from the shelves,” said Smith, representing Equality Florida as a senior policy advisor, at the state Education Board meeting.