DeSantis enacts law restricting Florida school book challenges

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced on Monday his intention to endorse a bill that will limit objections to books in public schools, attributing the filing of “frivolous challenges” to “activist” teachers and others as a means of undermining his parental rights legislation.

The 2021 Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, grants parents the ability to review and potentially contest school library books they deem “inappropriate,” aiming to eliminate questionable content from school libraries, regardless of other families’ approval.

The focus of these challenges has predominantly been on LGBTQ material.

Subsequently, numerous books and materials faced widespread challenges, resulting in their temporary removal from libraries and classrooms pending lengthy reviews of their suitability.

Under the legislation adopted during this year’s legislative session (HB 1285), a single challenge per month is permitted unless the challenger is a parent or guardian of a public school student.

DeSantis expressed during a press briefing, “It is deliberate, part of an agenda, and entirely inappropriate.”

“Schools are established to serve the community, not as a platform for pursuing ideological agendas at the expense of our children,” he emphasized.

Even though the bill is not yet in DeSantis’ possession, he assured that he would sign it upon its arrival.

DeSantis made his remarks at Warrington Preparatory Academy, a charter school that replaced a historically underperforming public school.

The bill encompasses various aspects of state education policy. In addition to modifications regarding book challenges, it includes language expediting charter conversions, granting charter operators access to facilities for devising turnaround strategies. Districts are prohibited from withholding resources, charging rent, and must retain the building. Priority for charter school enrollment is given to students within the public-school zone.

‘The Bluest Eye’

Representative Jennifer Canady from Polk County mentioned new regulations preventing the assignment of students to dropout prevention programs solely based on disabilities. Students in these programs are entitled to individualized objectives to support their success, she stated.

Canady added, “This bill ensures that students are treated individually and placed in environments conducive to their learning.”

In terms of book challenges, a 2022 legislation established a structured review process, including oversight by the Florida Department of Education.

Notwithstanding these changes, books that triggered challenges and were kept away from students’ reach included bestsellers like “The Kite Runner” and “The Bluest Eye” by renowned author Toni Morrison, and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, discussing the experiences of growing up Black and queer.

In Jacksonville, books featuring Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, which were part of the state’s recommended list, were inaccessible to students for months due to ongoing reviews.

During the 2022-2023 academic year, PEN America documented 1,406 instances of book bans in Florida, constituting 40% of the nationwide total. The organization is pursuing legal action against the Escambia County School District over its ban protocols.

DeSantis reiterated that his focus is solely on books deemed “age and developmentally appropriate.”

“Younger students, especially in lower grades, should not be exposed to sexually explicit material or ideologies like gender identity. Teaching kindergarteners about changing their gender is inappropriate and contradicts parental expectations for school education,” he stated on Monday.

Litigation

PEN America and the Florida Education Association, representing teachers, have criticized the ambiguity of the laws, suggesting they could lead to excessive restrictions on material access. Although the state laws do not impose felony charges directly for violations, the Duval County district cautioned teachers against exposing students to potentially pornographic content, hinting at potential legal consequences.

DeSantis dismissed these concerns as “performative” and politically motivated, arguing that educators should prioritize teaching over activism.

While acknowledging differing views, DeSantis remarked, “Some people believe all these challenged books are inappropriate, while others acknowledge their appropriateness but suggest otherwise to portray Florida negatively.”

He clarified, “No book is banned in Florida. Even the most explicit books removed from schools are available for purchase, but it’s inappropriate to expose sixth graders to such content.”

DeSantis emphasized, “Just as it is wrong for educators or unions to impose agendas on students, it is equally wrong for parents or activists to challenge materials passively to disrupt educational settings.”

“Individuals engaging in activism or unnecessary challenges are accountable for depriving students of quality education,” he concluded.

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